As a kid, I believed in Santa Claus for a long time. Like, a long time. And I believed hard. It helped that my parents kept the magic alive by leaving out “Santa Claus presents” for my entire childhood. And, of course, we always left out milk and cookies. But the clincher was that we would often hear bells jingling outside of our windows, long after we had been tucked into bed. (It’s only now that I’m thinking about that last one that I really, really hope it was my parents jingling those bells.)
Even after I realized that Santa wasn’t real, the magic didn’t end. In fact, my parents still leave out Santa Claus presents for me. Never mind the fact that I’m 40 years old. These days, when we spend Christmas with them, we all stay up together after the kids have gone to bed. As I put out Santa gifts for my own children, my mother puts out things for me and my very-much-grown siblings and says things like, “Oh…don’t look,” as if she’s on some covert elfin mission and maybe, just maybe, on Christmas morning, we’ll think Santa actually has been there.
It’s because of things like this that spending a Christmas morning in my childhood home still holds a certain kind of magic. These days, instead of my siblings and I dragging each other out of bed at first light, it’s our own kids who lead us bleary-eyed and bed-headed to the top of my parents’ stairs. Even as adults, we know better than to even think about going down. Instead, we simply sigh and take our places on the steps, everyone grabbing an overeager toddler by the back of the shirt with whatever free hand is available.
The door to the living room is always shut with my father standing guard, a cup of coffee in hand, exactly like when I was five. My siblings and I will sit patiently with our children, several of whom are now teenagers, and after countless groggy-faced photos have been taken, Dad will make a show of peeking through the door and shouting, “Looks like somebody’s been here!”
This routine does not vary. Ever. The only change from my own childhood is that now I think longingly and impatiently about the cup of coffee waiting for me on the other side of that door, rather than the presents.
I would find this whole charade ridiculous if it wasn’t caught up in crazy memory. As a teenager, I would roll my eyes and punch whichever sibling got too close to me on the stairs. But now, I couldn’t imagine celebrating Christmas any other way. Naturally, every Christmas morning photo collage of my kids starts with the groggy-faced stair photo. It’s just our thing. It’s what we do. It’s how we are made.
As a result of my, admittedly, overwrought sentimentality, my kids, too, believed in Santa Claus way too long. I am definitely that parent that would rather their hopes and dreams be crushed by some other kid on the playground than be the one to tell them to their face. I’m not proud of it, I’m just being honest.
Of course, eventually rumors reached them that perhaps their mother was, indeed, a big fat liar and it was not “just coincidence” that the same Baby Alive doll they found in the closet happened to show up under the tree two weeks later.
So when my oldest two started asking questions, I panicked. I really should have had a script prepared. I mean, I had rehearsed the whole “where babies come from” speech, but not Santa. I could teach them to “just say no” to drugs, but how could I teach them “No Santa”??
Suffice it to say, I stumbled through. There was a lot of “…but it’s not like there’s NOT a Santa, it’s just that he’s not real” and “go ask your father.”
The day the questions started with my youngest, who was my last bastion of Christmas magic, I thought, “This is it. This is the day Santa dies.”
It was like my “moon landing” moment or “where were you when JFK was shot” – I remember it clearly. We were in the car, stuck in holiday traffic. I knew I had to do better than I had with my first two, so I went with what made sense…to me, at least. I explained that Santa was real. He was very much real. Maybe not as an actual person that breaks into our house in the middle of the night, eats our food, then leaves a bunch of presents. But as a concept, a spirit – an idea even. I explained that “Santa” had been St. Nicholas, and as a man, he had devoted his life to giving. But once he was gone, people carried on that tradition. So when I bought presents for them and put them under the tree, I was keeping Santa’s spirit alive, just as they did every time they gave to someone else.
Recently, a viral post has gone around Facebook talking about a great way to break the “Santa” story to your kids. Basically, you explain that, when we are ready, we can become a Santa ourselves – and in doing that, we become someone who gives to others. I’m not sure where this Viral Super Mom was when I needed her all those years ago, as she says it much more eloquently than I did – now and then. But I love that this idea is out there. I think of my parents and their crazy traditions and how they kept the Christmas magic alive by not just letting us believe in Santa, but by being Santa themselves. And in doing so, they taught us to be Santa, in turn.
These days, my kids still get Santa presents – just like I do. And with every year that passes, I see their capacity and desire to give grow greater and greater – and not just to family and friends, but to those who may not have a “Santa” in their own lives. As their excitement comes more and more from giving rather than receiving, I sit back and think that, yes, “Santa” is real…very real, indeed.
While my parents continue their Santa charade, I see it differently than I once did. In it, I see how they continue to give, year after year. I see their devotion to family. I see their love of this new generation that wreaks havoc in a whirlwind of wrapping paper and child-proof packaging every Christmas morning. And I wonder if they know how important this is. I wonder if they know that they are not just creating traditions on Christmas morning, they are creating a spirit that has kept the beauty and magic of Christmas alive for me and my siblings for many years – and for many more years to come.
I know that Christmas means a lot of things for many people. For many it is a religious holiday. For others, it’s a long awaited excuse to see family. And for other still, it’s when they get to give – or perhaps receive – a desired thing. Whatever it is to you, make it magic. Keep old traditions or make your own. But know that in it all, your kids are learning from you. They are learning to “be Santa” – or if Santa’s not your thing – they are learning to give, to care about others, to carry on tradition, but most of all, they are learning to love. After all, that’s what Christmas is really all about.