There’s something about this time of year that brings out the kid in all of us (which is great, because a guy in Stormtrooper armor isn’t fooling anyone the other eleven months of the year). The holidays are a silly time — one for crazy sweaters, sing-songy music, and wishlists of toys (figurative or literal). But it’s also a time of child-like wonder: seeing the world through new eyes, allowing ourselves to ponder the innocence that mankind is capable of, and being moved by the traditions that came before us. The trick is remembering we can learn a lot from kids. Judge them by their size, do not!
Fifteen years ago, the Ghost of Christmas Past paid me a visit. It told me the Star Wars trilogy was returning to the big screen and just like that my childhood flashed before my eyes. Suddenly I was back to being that eight-year-old waking up Christmas morning to find a Millennium Falcon playset. And as fast as you can say Tiny Tim I was buying my first set of armor with the crazy idea of being a kid again.
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. Today, over 6,000 members of the 501st Legion play dress-up, along with the Rebel Legion, Mando Mercs, and other costuming clubs that make up one big island of misfit toys. And it’s the holidays when the magic of Star Wars finds a special opportunity to spread cheer.
Outside of Halloween, I dare you to find a season more befitting grown adults in Star Wars costumes. Funny enough, it just works. Star Wars is a fairy tale that, like Santa, keeps its hooks in you long after childhood. And in the Christmas pantheon R2-D2 is your classic toy robot, Stormtroopers your toy soldiers, and even if Yoda is a little green, he’s still your basic elf. Now take a bunch of fans who love nothing more than acting up in public and volunteering for community service and you have a party!
Yes, we have bell-ringing troopers, Jolly Saint Sith, droids chirping “Deck the Halls,” and Wookiees keeping watch over toy drives. The Mountain Garrison in Colorado has been partnering with Santa Claus and the Candle Lighters since 2000. Every year since has seen Christmas parties and charity functions around the world. There’s Santa Trooper in Australia and the Pink Snowtrooper in Japan who have become celebrities with the kids they visit. Wherever there’s a group of underprivileged children, children in hospitals, or a charity that needs help adding sizzle to their events, it’s a perfect place to drop some walking, talking ambassadors from a galaxy far away.
Bell-ringing is a staple of Christmas volunteer duties. An interesting change of pace when it’s freezing outside and you’re normally worried about over-heating in armor. There are also Toys for Tots drives, which can be interesting when you have a Marine smiling at the way you stand at attention. Hospital visits are particularly challenging but nothing beats having a child thank you for visiting them when they’d rather be somewhere else.
It’s probably the most exciting time of year when club chapters put out the call for Christmas gigs. People will drive for half a day just to pull a few hours’ duty. They can feel the excitement as a group that’s usually spread over hundreds of miles — and rarely convenes in one place — finally gets together like an extended family and reconnects. The fact that they come together to render community service makes it even more meaningful. Conventions can be fun, but there’s nothing that brings people together like working together to bring smiles to children’s faces.
Anyone who has done volunteer work will tell you that the reward from doing service is so much bigger than the effort put into it. Now imagine what that’s like when children actually see you as one of their heroes! Usually only department store Santas get that kind of experience! Kids will light up in a way that just leaves you speechless (which is fine since it’s hard to talk in a helmet anyway). And when they squeeze your hand and tell you that you’re their favorite action figure, well, a mask is a good place to hide leaky eyes.
So like I said, the trick is remembering what children can still teach us during this season. Take a moment to see the holidays through their eyes and you’ll be surprised what you learn. For me and my Imperial comrades who’ve seen it through the lenses of a Stormtrooper helmet, it can be a life-changing experience.
From all of us in the 501st Legion, please allow me to wish all Star Wars fans everywhere a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a wonderful Kwanza, and a great New Year!!
Albin Johnson was a lowly Stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion, “Vader’s Fist.” He’s also man-servant to R2-KT, “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.