I am one of the only people I know who actually enjoys the time change; the bare trees look enchanted in the low light of late afternoon and the spirits I imagine wandering among them remind me of the magical hours of my early childhood spent anticipating the arrival of the holiday season. Decades before “The Elf on the Shelf” became a thing, my older siblings warned me that Santa’s helpers were lurking about the woods and peeking in through the darkened glass of our windows to make sure I was being nice, not naughty. I envisioned the shadowy streets of our quiet neighborhood filled with otherworldly creatures in felt hats, reassuring me that my best behavior would surely be rewarded on Christmas morning.
The story of Santa Claus, in its many incarnations, can be a very important one for children to hear, I believe. The idea of being good for goodness sake is a simple one; but to have goodness incarnated at the superhuman level St. Nick represents is in and of itself a powerful lesson. The generosity of this character, who has devoted his life to making and distributing gifts to children around the globe, is incorporated into the young psyche as not only possible, but probable; the loss of this belief can be truly devastating, but also represents a unique opportunity for healthy growth.
My parents meticulously and seamlessly wove this mythology into my childhood and I was immune to school bus taunts that indicated anything other than the definite existence of the Jolly Old Elf. I pitied those who had lost their faith, luxuriating in my surety. Christmas morning was always a breathtaking spectacle, not so much of material gain but of magical surprises.
As I got a little older and experienced the understandable sleeplessness of excited anticipation on Christmas Eve, I also began to encounter a bit of anxiety—what would happen if I didn’t fall asleep in time? Would Santa pass us by?
One year as I fretted that my sister, a decade older than me, had not returned from a holiday party by what I considered a reasonable hour, I actually saw a small red light gliding across the tops of the trees in the woods behind our house and panicked…
Was it Rudolph? Had my sister selfishly managed to forfeit a whole year’s worth of gifts? I hid under the covers, my heart pounding.
As an adult I can assure you that I saw what I saw. We lived in rural Pennsylvania, not near an airport and in the long ago far away time before cell phone towers. I never saw the gliding red light before that night or ever again.
I saw what I saw. And, at the time, I believed I knew what I was seeing. But the next morning our stockings were stuffed full as usual and my worries seemed a million miles away as we had ourselves a merry little Christmas Day.
My loss of illusion would come, as it does for all children, and when it did I grieved. But my mourning was brief, for I had a younger sister as well, and I was committed to keeping the story alive for her sake as long as possible; I became part of the team. And it quickly became a role I relished.
When my son was born I was determined that his childhood would be as full of enchantment as my own had been. The internet and round-the-clock TV along with the ubiquitous problem known as “other children” would make this more challenging than it had been for my parents, but I guarded the story of Santa ferociously…and kept my son off the internet entirely until 6th grade, when it became necessary for school. At that point I knew Santa’s days were limited anyhow, and was proud of his very excellent run.
I had never tried to sell the story of a one-horse (actually, 8 reindeer) operation; starting when he was 4, I took him into New York City to FAO Schwartz (RIP) ever year at Christmastime and told him that everyone there worked for Santa. Likewise Santa at the mall, likewise at Macy’s, which hosted the Thanksgiving Day parade and boasted large red mailboxes in all of their stores to get letters to the North Pole quickly. Santa was real, but to pull off the now Herculean feat he had taken on so many years ago, he required a vast network of helpers from every walk of life.
And like I believed my older siblings when they told me elves were lurking in the woods around our house, my son believed me. Anyone might be working for Santa; it was a worldwide conspiracy for GOOD. I also told him that one day he would no longer wish for the kinds of gifts Santa delivers and he would voluntarily take his name off of the list to leave room in the sleigh for other, smaller children.
He accepted all of this easily. He wrote his letter each year, he carefully laid out cookies and carrots (for the reindeer) by the hearth every Christmas Eve. He would only receive a gift or two from the big man, but each was chosen for maximum wow factor, like the year he became obsessed with Kiwi birds and found a beautiful stuffed toy rendering of such peeking out of his stocking.
“Santa really KNOWS me!” he marveled, hugging the toy to his chest with glowing eyes; you cannot trade that kind of parenting moment for anything in the world.
His faith was strong; even with the whole internet at his fingertips, he never thought to ask or look. When others mocked his belief he was incredulous, just as I had been as a child. “I don’t understand how people can NOT believe in Santa. Could anything be more obvious?” he demanded.
His loss of illusion would come, as it does for all children. At the hands of Google’s aggressive manner of guessing what you might want to know before you finish typing, he had written only “Is s” when Google thoughtfully suggested “Is Santa real?” as a completion to his query. Thanks, Google, btw.
I came into his room a short time after, not knowing what had happened, but I could instantly tell he was out of sorts. He is not a blurter, so I started asking questions about what was wrong and what could I do to help. After a few minutes of this, he demonstrated what had just happened using his school laptop.
Oh, how my heart sank. A month before Christmas…really, Google??? His beautiful eyes filled with tears and he said, “Mom, there was never a doubt in my mind.”
Of course there wasn’t, my love. Because could anything be more obvious?
Santa may not be “real”, but losing Santa surely is. We lose our belief in the obviousness of goodness, the obviousness of true generosity, the obviousness of magic. When we lose Santa, we lose the security of knowing for sure that all of those things exist “out there”.
But what we gain is the clarity and wisdom that all those things actually reside within us.
Believing in Santa teaches us that “Santa” is who we can be—essentially good, essentially generous, but also allowed to exercise discernment. We give our gifts to those who are capable of receiving them, the people who believe in us. We understand that “magic” will always be a question of perception rather than “fact”, and in knowing this we will recognize it easily when we see it—we will know what we saw.
My son is adjusting quickly to the loss of Santa and is excited to be part of the team; when I asked him to promise me he would never tell another child that Santa isn’t “real”, he teared up. “Why would I ever do that? Santa IS real!”
Yes my son, there is a Santa Claus; and we are him.