It’s Christmas and time for a full helping of Christmas Jelly, our popular holiday short story collection.
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Santa Claus is Coming . . . to School
From Christmas Jelly by Curt Iles
I’ve learned this: life is always better than fiction. You cannot
make up a story that outdoes the truth.
Gordon Copeland sat in my office as I read his resume.
“Mr. Copeland, you have impressive credentials for a substitute
He was a barrel-chested man in his late sixties. A thick head of
white hair and long beard to match it. A hearty laugh. Red cheeks.
“Has anyone ever told you how you look like Santa Claus?”
He laughed. “Everyday. In Florida, I did a good bit of Santa
Claus roles. Even did a commercial for Coca-Cola. This year I’d
like to make a little extra substituting.”
“Good. We always need substitutes for the three weeks between
Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll be calling you.”
I’ll never forget the first day he worked in the first and second
grade hall. It was early December—always an interesting time in
our K-12 rural school.
Like electricity, it spread through the hall: Santa Claus is taking
Mrs. King’s place today.
He wasn’t dressed in red and white. He had on cowboy boots
and blue slacks. But he was still Santa Claus to these first graders.
My job as assistant principal was coordinating the substitutes.
I peeked into his classroom several times that day. The students
were quiet as a mouse, working at their desks. This was not normal
behavior when a substitute teacher was present.
But this wasn’t just any substitute. This was Santa Claus.
He had a weapon stronger than any paddle or time-out corner.
They didn’t want a bag of switches come Christmas morning.
I mean this is a man about whom children sing:
He’s making a list.
Checking it twice.
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Mr. Copeland’s noontime appearance in the lunchroom created
a minor riot. When I set my plate down at the teacher table, one
of them commented dryly, “I don’t believe having Santa Claus
substitute is such a good idea.”
I nodded. “It’s made Brandon and Willie behave in Mrs. King’s
“That’s a miracle. But it’s made the other hundred students
Mr. Copeland became a frequent sub during that Christmas
season. The reaction was always the same. His class was on their
best behavior, but the other students couldn’t concentrate with
Santa Claus next door or down the hallway.
Gordon Copeland also substituted in the upper grades. They
weren’t true believers and didn’t respond with quite the same level
of respect or awe.
He became my friend during that year and served our school
He didn’t return the next Christmas season. He told me he’d
take his chances at department stores and malls “ho ho ho-ing”
over corralling students in a classroom.
The next year Gordon Copeland died of a sudden heart attack.
I still miss him and smile when I recall him roaming the East
Beauregard Elementary hallway to cries of “Santa Claus is here.
Santa Claus is coming to school.”
Merry Christmas, Mr. Copeland.
He knows when you’ve been sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows when you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness’ sake.
Thinking about Santa Claus’ legendary all-seeing eyes, I was
reminded of a wonderful story from a biography of the great
African statesman, Albert Schweitzer:
Schweitzer related the story of a one-eyed European
lumberman who worked near his compound. The lumberman
needed to go away on business, so he took out his glass eye, laid
it on his desk, and called in his African workers. “I’ll be gone for
a while, but I’m leaving my eye to watch your work while I’m
He returned in several weeks and was delighted that every
chore and job had been completed. He had solved the problem of
absentee supervision of his work crew.
A few months later he needed to make another longer trip. He
repeated his earlier statement and left the glass eye on his desk “to
He returned to find work piled up everywhere. Nothing had
been done. Dismayed, he rushed into his office to see what had
In the middle of his desk was a large hat. He lifted it to find the
As they say, “Out of sight. Out of mind.”
Now what does a glass eye, Santa Claus as a substitute, and
Christmas have to do each other?
We laugh at the Africans and their belief in the magical all-seeing
However, there is a true all-seeing eye. It’s called God.
We believe he is everywhere so he sees all. Omnipresent.
Knows all. Omniscient.
He is all powerful. Omnipotent.
Yet, we puny humans think we can put a hat over God and go
our merry way. That’s way more silly than believing in the power
of a glass eye.
Throughout the Bible we find the term, “Fear the Lord.”
There’s lots of discussion on whether this means awesome respect,
cowering fear, or more. The answer is yes.
We should have an awesome respect for God. He created all
there is. He controls all things. His ways are far above our ways.
And we should have a healthy dose of fear. Not cowering fear,
but reverent fear. A fear factor that affects everything we do—or
don’t do. Our actions and attitudes should be seen through the
prism of “we will answer before God for ‘every idle word’ one
My personal take on this is that my fear of God is rooted in
not wanting to disappoint Him. I love Him. I revere Him. Yes, I
fear him. I don’t want to be found wanting in my commitment and
devotion to Him.
Christmas is always a good time for introspection.
Looking inside ourselves at what our priorities really are.
A look in the mirror at whom we’re becoming.
Somebody is watching you and me.
He doesn’t wear a red suit or carry switches.
Neither does he have a glass eye.
Somebody is watching me.
If I truly believe that, it’ll make a difference in how I live.