By Keith Meisel, firstname.lastname@example.org
6:35 AM EST, November 21, 2012
Saturday evening, magic will descend upon the dull, drab parking lot near the Arbutus Town Hall as the traditional welcome to Santa Claus on Nov. 24 marks the official start to the holiday season.
Little children become the playing pieces in a game of Candy Land, hopping to the colored squares at the direction of the spinner.
A plain white commercial truck becomes a movie screen, with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Kris Kringle and other familiar Christmas images flickering on its side.
Popcorn and drinks are free for the taking.
At the Santa House next door to the Ice Cream Cottage on Stevens Avenue, the magic is perhaps strongest.
"The kids are all excited outside. Then, as soon as they cross this line (to go inside) and see the big man, well, sometimes it takes a while," said Jeff Utzinger, who has been organizing the annual late November welcoming event for the Arbutus Business and Professional Association for more years than he can remember.
Faced with a real, live version of the bearded man in the red and white suit is sometimes too much for youngsters fueled by hot chocolate and candy as they step inside the Santa House, Utzinger said.
Little ones have leaped behind their parents or held desperately onto adult legs when offered the opportunity to deliver their Christmas requests face-to-face, Utzinger said.
To deal with such difficult situations, Santa needs some skilled helpers.
On Nov. 24, that means Karen Herring, Donna Marino, Sandy Sheubrooks and Sandy's daughter, Rachel, 13.
"Without people like them, we couldn't do this," Utzinger said on his corps of dedicated volunteers that work behind the scenes as well as in the Santa House.
The four form a precision unit that calms the overly excited, cajoles the reluctant, photographs the scene, hands out the photo and free gifts and ushers the young visitors out the door.
"Some of the kids, it's priceless, they're so excited," said Sandy Sheubrooks, who volunteered to become one of Santa's helpers four years ago at the behest of her sister, Donna Marino. "But there are others who want no parts of him.
"Usually, Santa Claus is really good with them," she said on the guest of honor's calm demeanor that produces a scene Sheubrooks can photograph for her sister to print and then give to the child.
Sheubrooks understands. When her only child was 1 or 2, she said, she can remember joining her on Santa's lap.
"It's a good excitement," she said on the duties she shares with her daughter helping other children feel comfortable with Santa. "It's fun watching them, and it gets you into the spirit."
She said she also enjoys watching older children accompanying their younger siblings to the annual event.
"You know they don't want to be there, but they do it," she said.
Her daughter, an eighth-grader at St. Augustine School, said she wasn't completely sold on the duty when her mother volunteered her three years ago.
"I had a fun time," she said on why she returns to volunteer to help out at the Santa House for several nights each year.
She makes sure each visitor leaves with a free coloring book and pack of crayons.
Wearing red and green velvet shorts and leggings, her duties sometimes include reading a young visitor's Christmas list to Santa, so he knows exactly what goes beneath the tree.
Sometimes, that's the only way parents find out what their kids want, Sandy Sheubrooks said.
The wants are the usual assortment of games, toys and dolls, though electronics now form the majority of requests.
"There was a 5-year-old who asked for an iPhone and an iPad," said Rachel, whose wish list this year includes a camera to replace the one that stopped working while on vacation last year.
She said the only trouble she can recall on the nights the community welcomes Santa to Arbutus has been when some of the younger visitors play with the trains and knock the cars off the tracks.
"But there were no kids who have ever been disrespectful or mean," she said.
Must be something magic in the air.