For many children a visit with Santa is one of the highlights of the holiday season. They sit on the big guy's lap and he asks what they want for Christmas. Even the youngest kids who have not mastered complete sentences typically have a ready answer to that question.
However, children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and communicate through American Sign Language, may not understand Santa's questions or have the ability to tell him what's on their Christmas wish list.
On Thursday morning, 50 preschool and elementary age students from the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford were given a unique opportunity to speak with Santa in American Sign Language, when 'Signing Santa' spent the day at Westfarms Mall.
"It's fantastic," said Westfarms Director of Marketing and Sponsorship Christa Allen. She said one of the most amazing moments was when Santa came down the elevator where the kids were waiting, rapt expressions on their faces.
Teachers, parents, and other chaperones who escorted the ASD students through Westfarms' Ice Palace were just as enthusiastic and happy to see the kids speaking with Santa, creating special crafts, dining on food from California Pizza kitchen, and enjoying the other elements of the multi-sensory Ice Palace.
There are 16 Taubman-owned properties that have a similar Ice Age theme and an Ice Palace for the holidays this year. All are being visited by Signing Santa (who comes straight from the North Pole, said Westfarms spokesperson Amanda May Sirica!) because it was a good fit with the Ice Age movie which has a sign language picture-in-picture option in the Blu-ray™ version.
At Westfarms, the event has even more meaning. "Having Signing Santa here is extra special because the birthplace of American Sign Language [American School for the Deaf] is right up the street," said Allen.
Smiling for the camera, laughing with a resonant "ho-ho-ho," Santa spoke with each child who sat on his lap. "Do you know how old I am?" he signed to one boy, stroking his white beard. "Very, very old," the boy signed in return.
Will, a 5-year-old from Madison, told Santa that he knew he would get "rocks and dirt" this year if he's not good.
During the two-hour visit, the students requested their favorite creations from a balloon artist who said she had a quick lesson in sign language before the event, learning animal signs and "Merry Christmas."
Olivia Tierney from Bumblebug Art doesn't know American Sign Language, but said that really didn't matter. "It's been really fun working with the kids. Art is a medium that is a language in itself. Art transcends language," said said.
Students ran and played in the "snow" which falls in the Ice Palace. Twelve-year-old Erika Polanco of Hartford, who recently moved to Connecticut from the Dominican Republic, was fascinated with the snow – a natural substance which is not as wet as regular snow, but nevertheless has to be shoveled, Sirica said.
"The kids were just over-the-top excited. It was especially exciting for them to be able to sign," said ASD's Assistant Director of Institutional Advancement Rennie Polk. Although some of the kids are able to speak, others use American Sign Language as their sole means of communication.
Westfarms General Manager Kevin Keenan said that the event was fantastic. "We would love to be able to partner with ASD and have another event like this that would serve the deaf community."
After the American School for the Deaf students' private event concluded, Signing Santa spent the rest of the day greeting members of the public, including others from the deaf community who were thrilled to speak with him in American Sign Language.