Every year for 47 years, the children at Albion Street School, an inner-city school in a poor, immigrant neighborhood east of Chinatown, have celebrated Christmas with a special visit from the Santa Claus who lives in Beverly Hills.
This year the tradition was carried on by Beverly Hills High School student body President Robert Rich, 17.
Dressed in the high school's hand-me-down Santa Claus outfit, he joined about 50 fellow student helpers in the annual visit to the Albion Street school last week. They handed out gifts, sang Christmas carols and spent the day playing with the children.
Eager for Santa Claus
Stepping out on the busy school yard, Rich was mobbed by a host of children who wanted to tug at his full white beard, poke at his round pillow-stuffed belly and grab his funny red hat. More than 100 children lined up for the chance to sit on Santa's lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.
"I want a skateboard," Roger, 9, told the jolly man with the ill-fitting white beard.
"Hey Santa," another shouted. "Did you come here from the North Pole? Where are your reindeer?"
"They are a little sick today, so I came by bus," Santa responded.
Rich said he waited four years for the chance to play Santa for the children at the Albion Street school, a tradition for Beverly Hills High School students that goes back long before he was born.
No one knows exactly how the tradition got started. Over the years, however, the relationship between the two schools has grown into more than just a charitable giving of presents.
"Every smiling face has been incredible," said Rich, his face dripping with sweat, his smile revealing a mouth full of braces. "Yes, even Santa has an orthodontist on the North Pole."
The tradition of bringing Christmas to Albion Street has flourished despite changes in the populations at the two schools. When the program began more than 40 years ago, the majority of the students at Beverly Hills High School were Christian.
Today, however, the majority of students at Beverly Hills High School are Jewish. As Santa, Rich mixed a couple of "Happy Hanukkahs" in with his hearty greetings of "Merry Christmas."
Albion Street, on the other hand, is still a school with children from poor, immigrant families. But today the families are no longer from Italy as they were 40 year ago. Of the 570 student enrolled there, 27% are Asian and 73% are Latino.
'This Is Their Only Christmas'
"Some kids won't receive much for Christmas because their families cannot afford it. So, for many, this is their only Christmas," said Candida Fernandez, Albion's principal.
Other students, recently arrived from Vietnam or other Asian countries, do not celebrate Christmas because they are Buddhist. The Christmas party helps them understand a little more about America.
"Christmas is foreign, a very Western thing for many of these children," said Wrisney Tan, whose fourth- and fifth-grade students are mostly from Vietnam. "The biggest thing they celebrate is the Chinese New Year and you don't get presents then, you get money."
Betsy Lightbourne, a special education teacher, said, "Some of the kids think that Santa Claus comes from Beverly Hills."
Through the years, the Christmas celebration at the Albion School has become such an attraction in the small community that former students have come back with their parents to share in the festivities, especially to hear the Beverly Hills High School Madrigal Singers perform Christmas carols and to take pictures of Santa.
"We try to come every year," said Donna Rendon, a 1970 graduate who brought her three children back to enjoy the day's festivities. "I no longer live in the neighborhood and my children don't attend the school, but we come back because of the special feeling we get here."
Fernandez said the exchange with Beverly Hills and the coming together of people in the community has created a "sense of family" at the school.
In addition to the presents from Beverly Hills students, parents and teachers bring gifts to share. The school's Christmas tree was donated to a needy family with eight children, Fernandez said.
Students at Beverly Hills High School compete for the chance to go to the Albion Street School. Rich was automatically selected because he is student body president.
More than 100 other students submitted their names in a drawing for the chance to go. The group then raised $800 for gifts--dolls, dinosaurs, yo-yos and other toys.
"I think I'm going to name her Tina," said Alejadina, 8, gazing at the hand-sized doll she received from Santa Claus.
"I like dinosaurs" said Herman, 9, who said he was going to the Boy's Club later that day because they were also giving away Christmas toys.
For many of the students, the Beverly Hills' Santa Claus was the real thing.
"One of my students asked me why Santa Claus looked so thin," said a teacher. "I told him, 'He is losing weight because he has to work so hard running up and down the stairs.' "
Watching the children's expressions change, their eyes light up as the gifts were being handed out was just what Lisa Steier had come to see. "It feels good when you know you have done something that makes someone happy," said the Beverly Hills High School student.
The day was one of those rare opportunities when two ends of town, one privileged the other underprivileged, come together, said Margarita Aguilar, a first-grade teacher.
"It is good for them to see how the other half lives, even if it is only for a day," she said.
At day's end, the students from Albion Street went home to begin their vacations with dreams about what they were going to get for Christmas.
The Beverly Hills students were full of thoughts about what they were going to do next. Rich was going to the Soviet Union with a group of students from high school. Others had plans to go skiing at Lake Tahoe. And still others were going to Las Vegas.