By Margaret Betz

One of the many advantages of life in a small town like Swarthmore is the annual Santa Claus visit. As part of a tradition started in the 1890s, Swarthmore parents can sign up to have Santa visit children in their homes on Christmas Eve.

When I moved to Swarthmore nearly 10 years ago, I found the idea charming and vowed to take part as soon as I had a child old enough to appreciate it. That time came when my son turned 3. I soon learned what is both a bewildering and magical experience for children is also a comical and sentimental one for their parents.

Upon making the call to sign us up, I was immediately informed this visit might occur anywhere between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Two in the morning? A child kept awake until 2 a.m., only to rise with the sun to open presents, is hardly a situation any parent would willingly create.

That may not be necessary, Santa's "elf" explained to me on the phone, because Santa can enter your children's bedroom and wake them himself. I entertained this notion for a moment, then considered how terrifying such an experience likely would be. Can you imagine a big fat man in a red suit with his face covered by a beard awaking you in your bed in the middle of the night? I shudder at the thought. I kept my fingers crossed for an early visit and eagerly anticipated Santa at our door.

Finally, Christmas Eve arrived. With my son situated comfortably on the living room couch, we anxiously listened for the telltale sound of sleigh bells outside our door. Luckily, at 9:30 on that frosty cold night, we heard a "Ho ho ho!" as Santa approached our house. As he entered in a suit that looked older than Santa himself, I quickly realized there is a definite window of time in a child's life for this experience: too young, and children will be utterly mystified and terrorized; too old, and they'll immediately catch on to the absurdity of it all.

Our Santa Claus looked all of about 17, and I wouldn't have been surprised if he had uttered, "Merry Christmas, dude!" My son stared in disbelief at Santa actually standing before him in his own home, very curious but (like most children) nonetheless apprehensive of this possibly menacing figure. The question of why Santa entered through the front door and not the chimney never occurred to him in all his excitement. Nor did he question why we failed to offer Santa the customary plate of cookies. (No food or alcohol, instructed Santa's elf on the phone, apparently because otherwise Santa would be stuffed and drunk by the end of that yuletide night.)

Part of the tradition includes leaving a gift on your doorstep for Santa to bring in as he enters your home. Our Santa obliged by handing my son a play shaving kit, awkwardly standing there silently as I attempted to engage him in small talk. I secretly wondered, could it be we were Santa's first visit ever? Yet whatever Santa said or didn't say that year escaped my 3-year-old son as he tried to wrap his mind around an experience he'd only seen in storybooks.

At 2 years old, my younger son is just now approaching the age that he might be interested in staying awake for Santa's visit. I carefully explained to him what it entails and his older, wiser, brother piped in, "Yeah, you get to stay up late and watch grown-up TV" - also known as It's a Wonderful Life - "and get a present from Santa." The younger one contemplated all this, appearing puzzled by the whole description. I don't blame him.

All in all, Swarthmore's tradition - in all its quirky wonder - is bound to create many a sweet memory for its residents. I'm just waiting for my children's cousins to ask the obvious question: "Why doesn't Santa Claus visit us on Christmas Eve night?" Short answer: "You live in the wrong town, sweetie. Merry Christmas!"

Margaret Betz lives and writes in Swarthmore.