Friday, December 13, 2013

The Christmas Party

As Santa Clauses go, you can't do much better than Princeton water polo coach Luis Nicolao.

In fact, TigerBlog thinks there's a chance that Nicolao is the actual real Santa.

There he was last night, at the Princeton Athletics Christmas party, ho-ho-ho-ing his way into the back of the room at the Shea Rowing Center with his bag of toys for the assembled children. Clearly he was a huge hit for the under-six crowd.

TigerBlog loves the whole little kid-Santa dynamic.

On the one hand, kids will ask all kinds of skeptical questions about the whole Santa experience, or they'll tell each other that the one at the mall - or at the Christmas party - isn't the "real" Santa.

Clearly it makes little sense when viewed with the lens of reality. One man, riding a sleigh driven by eight reindeer, flies all over the world in a 24-hour window, delivering presents to every single child on Earth who makes the "nice" list. Yeah, not too practical.

And yet children want to believe so strongly that they suspend any sense of reality in the name of Santa. Hey, starting in September really, parents of young children can get them to do almost anything they don't want to do simply by saying three words: "Santa is watching."

What's hard to do with little kids is get them to understand that 1) Santa is real but 2) people who are more fortunate often will purchase gifts for families who are less fortunate at this time of year. This becomes problematic because the dynamic shifts from one of nice vs. naughty to one that is money-centric.

TB remembers telling TigerBlog Jr. a long time ago that a gift was purchased for a poorer child as part of the department's Giving Tree, and TBJ - probably in the four or five year old range then - said something along the lines of "why doesn't Santa just get him something; was he naughty?"

The fact that children are so willing to believe in a Santa is so refreshingly innocent that TB can't help but smile at the thought of it. And the sight of Nicolao in his best red-and-white outfit last night, surrounded by the kids? It was wonderful.

The party was the second department-wide gathering of the day. The first was at the monthly staff meeting, the highlight of which was clearly when Kim Meszaros, Gary Walters' assistant, put "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" on the speakers while Anthony Archbald, the Executive Associate Athletic Director, was talking about following departmental rules or something like that.

Fun stuff.

Gary wrapped up the meeting by saying he'd see everyone at the Christmas party, which immediately sparked the debate as to whether it's a Christmas party or Holiday party. As a Jewish person, TB is completely offended by the idea that calling something a Christmas party is somehow supposed to be offensive to him.

It was a Christmas party. It had Christmas songs, Christmas decorations, Christmas cookies - even quite possibly the real Santa, or at the very least, as close as anyone is going to get to having the real Santa. No other holiday was mentioned or suggested other than Christmas.

And that's fine with TB.

Christmas is a federal holiday with a great message of peace and goodwill. Had it been a called a Jesus party, TB might have objected a bit. Christmas? Never a problem with TB.

Gary mentioned that it was his 20th such party as Director of Athletics, and the last one before he steps aside from his position. He referred to the term "swan song" and wondered what it's origin was.

TB had no idea, so he checked out Wikipedia:
The phrase refers to an ancient belief that swans sing a beautiful song in the moment just before death, having been silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime. This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in Ancient Greece by the 3rd century BC, and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.

It was also TB's 20th Christmas party. He remembers when it was held in the lobby of Jadwin or at Charlie Browns, a nearby restaurant in Kingston.

He can't remember exactly when it hit upon its current location, the boathouse, but it's the perfect place for the party, except for the lack of parking that becomes more problematic when the grass has snow on it.

Still, it's a really, really nice event each year.

Princeton's athletic department is separated into different spots on campus. Some are in Jadwin. Some are in Dillon. Some are at the boathouse. Some are at the tennis center.

Factor in the people who come to the party from different places on campus, such as the administration or campus life or other areas, and it really is a group of people who all know each other but aren't all together too often.

Princeton fields a highly competitive Division I athletic program, with 38 varsity sports and 1,000 varsity athletes. The school's athletic success has long been a huge source of pride among those who work here, and it's been well-documented here and on and elsewhere.

Standing in the boathouse, though, TB was really struck by the fact that all of this happens with relatively few people - especially compared to the rest of the schools that Princeton regularly competes with in the Directors' Cup, for instance.

There they were last night, at the boathouse. A small, hard-working, dedicated group of people whose commitment to providing the best possible student-athlete experience drives them all in what they do.

It's something everyone there takes pride in, that their job is part of this, that their role has a direct impact on the current day of that long, great athletic tradition - and directly on the lives of a group of 18- to 22-year-olds who have the great good fortune to compete at Princeton as athletes and students and who can't possibly be expected to know that all of these people in the boathouse work every day on their behalf.

That's what makes Princeton Athletics so special for TigerBlog, and always has. And always will.

They're an extraordinary group of people, his co-workers are.

And so celebrating the Christmas season with his co-workers and colleagues is always a really special day for him, even though he's a Jewish kid from Penn.

Last night was no different.

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