Every year, the Pilot takes our Partners in Excellence class through Santa's Castle as a little extra treat for them.
Okay, okay - truth be told, they take me through Santa's Castle, and it's every bit as much a treat for those who are only kids at heart.
They see things that I never would have, and imagine up questions that make me smile. They giggle at animated goats and say "ick" about a couple of animated characters sharing a kiss.
Second grade is a pretty good state of mind to be in. You've learned all the basics - reading, math, the facts that the planets rotate around the sun and that wet tongues are not to be placed on metal swingsets in the winter... everything else is just details.
You don't care yet about bills, politics, gas mileage, fashion, international conflict, ethnic differences or calories in second grade. You still have an abundance of curiosity, trust and wide-eyed wonder.
You may or may not completely believe in this Santa Claus character in second grade, but you aren't so sure that when confronted with the guy in the red coat and beard, you're willing to take chances.
Our kids clambered up onto his lap, a few going back for seconds. Just like they were going to visit an old friend. We read a book, and everyone joined in on "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night," even the teacher.
Our second graders seemed pretty impressed with Santa's Castle this year, and I have to agree with them.
Maybe it's partly the realization that we came very close to losing this tradition, until a few incredible volunteers stepped forward and not only kept the Castle alive, but made it better than ever.
I was amazed last year by how much they did to completely clean, restore and improve the priceless display of classic holiday animation. But just as I thought their work was done, they were only beginning.
This year, they added the charm. In every detail. It's no longer a bunch of exhibits in an old building, but a seamless, flowing story of holiday traditions as old as our great-grandparents but as heart-warming as ever. And the kids could feel it right away. When it comes to Christmas, you don't fool a second grader - they know the real deal magic from the cheesy styrofoam North Poles you find in those shopping malls.
More so than any other year, this season's version of Santa's Castle seems to capture what the display is all about. It is full of historic enchantment, a perfect fit for the classic Victorian style Carnegie Library building that houses it. It feels warm and right.
It's less about flashing lights and noise, and more about the timeless magic of the holidays.
Our kids loved the gigantic tree all trimmed in forest-style theme, the new old fashioned skating rink, with its ladies trimmed in amazing detail, the wonderful handmade model train display that is growing to explore and entire room, the animals once broken and tattered in a warehouse but now restored to better than new, the Santa's workshop and displays of toys from years and years ago.
They didn't want to get back on the bus, and to tell the truth, I would just have soon played hooky from work and spent the day with them, enjoying their childlike enthusiasm and this place where everyone seems to be a child again, if just for a little bit.
If you haven't been to Santa's Castle this year, then for goodness sakes, drop what you're doing and get there. It's a part of what makes Storm Lake the Christmas City, and it is the best its ever been. I recommend it highly.
You don't have to be in second grade to appreciate this wonderful place, but it does help to be young at heart.
And for those children who are pondering whether Santa Claus is real, I have news for them.
Every time I see what my friends, the Santa's Castle volunteers, have done - giving literally thousands of hours of their lives creating magic for their community and its children that is totally one of a kind - I think I know the answer.
If Santa Claus is about spirit and loving and giving to others, then Santa is very real and very alive in these old walls, and I hope that it will always be so.