Christmas, as Andy Williams once crooned, is the most wonderful time of the year. But it’s also the priciest, especially if you have kids. Last year, I waited in line for two hours at Tysons Galleria, so that my two boys, Leo, 4, and James, 2, could tell Santa Claus what they wanted for Christmas, or, in James’ case, cause a fuss and refuse to get anywhere near Santa.
I checked the Tysons’ website again this year, in order to try to plan a return visit at a less busy time and noticed they’re now offering “free smiles, hugs, wish taking, hand holding, and gifts,” along with their photo packages, which start at $22.99 and go up to $45.99. I’m usually loathe to pass up an offer of free hand-holding, but when I heard about Bull Run Regional Park’s Festival of Lights in Centreville, which features a three-mile-long lights display, carnival rides and Santa, I decided it was a good opportunity to kill three or four colly birds with one stone.
The festival has been a local tradition since 1996 and was taken over by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority in 2005. After reading a few horror stories online about legendary traffic jams at the festival in years past, I had some trepidation as we approached the grounds last Saturday around 6 p.m. But we paid the $20 entry fee and glided right in with no problem. The only snag was that James and Leo had both fallen asleep in the back seat.
We had planned the outing expressly for them, so it seemed a bit odd to drive past the festival’s 40,000 lights, assembled over a month by a dozen workers, while they were conked out. We managed to wake Leo up, but James wouldn’t budge. One out of two counts as a quorum in our car, so we drove on, passing an impressive array of lights, which included everything you’d expect plus fish jumping out of a pond, Germanic children in lederhosen licking lollypops, the Wizard of Oz characters and more.
After completing the drive, we parked, woke James up and followed the neon glow of midway rides toward Santa’s Village. We bought a $4 s’mores kit, which included 5 marshmallow cubes, six graham crackers and a Hershey’s bar, and made our way toward the fire pits. As my wife gamely tried to assemble the s’mores, impatient James insisted on eating the chocolate bar a la carte.
I asked Bobby Brinkman, a 19-year-old Fairfax resident who works as a “fire attendant” at the festival, if he’d heard about incidents of road rage along the often slow-moving lights trail.
“Not at all,” he said, while keeping one eye on the marshmallow-roasters. “Last night there was this woman who was playing the cello by the fire and I asked her if she worked here, and she was like, ‘nope, just spreading the Christmas spirit.’”
Over in Santa’s tent, Angela Alexander, an Ashburn mom who brought her four children to see Santa, jumped up and down in excitement, waving her hands excitedly, trying to get Santa’s attention.
“Do you know Santa?” I asked, a little confused by her exuberant display.
“Nope,” she said. “I just love Christmas and I love seeing Santa.”
“I don’t know her,” said Alexander’s 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, in mock embarrassment.
I was almost as stoked as Alexander when I realized that the line to see Santa consisted of only about a half-dozen people, and the photos started at just $6.95. Sarah’s brother, Zachary,7, who wore plaid shorts despite the 38-degree chill, told us he wanted a remote-control helicopter. His older sister Emily wanted a Wii. My children are, blessedly, still at an age when they want CTCs. (Cheap Things from China)
“Chomping shark, CHOMPING SHARK!” my son Leo said, emphatically, rehearsing his list for Santa.
Once we were on deck, I asked Mrs. Claus, who divides her time between Harpers Ferry and the North Pole, and has an alter ego named Karen Oppenheimer, what kids wanted for Christmas this year.
“Computers, iPods, iPads, smart phones, anything that has to do with technology,” she said.
After our visit with Santa, during which Leo repeated his “CHOMPING SHARK” mantra, and James grudgingly agreed to sit with Santa but drew the line at actually smiling for the photo, we hit the carnival.
I wasn’t thrilled about paying $3.75 for a 2-minute carousel ride, but it gave me an opportunity to meet Frederick Carson, a fifty-something carnie from San Francisco who works the trade for eight months each year. During the festival, Carson and seven other carnies live in cabins in the park’s campground area. He looked so cold; I couldn’t help but ask him if he missed being at home for the holiday season.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I got warmers in my shoes and in my gloves; you don’t need those in California.”
Over at the flying dragon ride, I met Kenny Rice, 47, a carnie from Odenton, Md.
“We’re all family,” he said of his fellow carnies, who work for a fourth-generation family carnival outfit based in Annapolis, Md. “You just bought your tickets from my ex-wife and her boyfriend, and my daughter, Megan, sells mini-doughnuts and funnel cakes across the way.”
Rice works outside, in the cold, and with a view of his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, but had no complaints.
“I don’t mind the work at all,” he said. “I get to see the joy on kids’ faces as they’re flying around.”
And that’s what Christmas is all about: forgiving ex-wives and rapacious Santas, finding joy, and counting blessings.