A decade ago, I spent the better part of a day constructing a paper chimney on the lemon-colored wall of our tiny Miami apartment. It was the week of Christmas and my two toddlers needed to know that Santa Claus would have someplace to land on Christmas Eve.
Fast-forward to earlier this year. My second son, now 8, pulled me aside before bed. “Mom, is Santa Claus real?”
I sat him on the stairs. I had prepared for this moment. Years ago, I wrote the gentle, revealing speech in my head. It began with these words, “In a country long ago lived a monk named Saint Nicholas ” It includes phrases like, “All through the ages, in countries all over the world, the tradition of Santa Claus lives on. The spirit of Santa Claus never dies.”
The speech didn't go the way I imagined. We both ended the night in tears, and my son said this: “Then if there’s no Santa Claus, then there’s no such thing as magic.”
That’s where my heart died a little. I am a person of faith. I attend church weekly, serve in callings, pay a tithe, read scripture and pray daily. Do I believe in magic? Absolutely. I believe in water turned to wine and loaves that feed 5,000. I believe in a sea split in two and trumpets that shake down walls.
But I also believe in everyday magic, the kind that requires a childlike wonder of the world. This is magic: The 14 inches of Minnesota snow that frost the trees on a December day. Stringing words together into a coherent thought, children sounding out those first words, harmony created with two voices or a whole heavenly chorus. To me, cooking is magic: a leavened loaf of bread, spiced gingerbread, fresh whipped cream. Love and friendship are a miracle. I garden because I can’t get over the miracle of dropping seeds into the Earth and growing a 5-foot sunflower.
When I set out to build a paper chimney a decade ago, I wanted my kids to believe both in the heavenly-host-type magic and the everyday breath of magic, and if it meant perpetuating a myth about a furry-suited man who drops in on Christmas Eve, I was game. I told Santa stories with gusto. I nibbled the reindeer carrots with the precision of a beaver and left a handwritten note in scrawled red pen to the Lewis Boys.
I expected my boys to develop as I did, from a wide-eyed believer into a tween skeptic: the kind who sniffs for uncertainty, the kind like my husband who one year unwrapped all the presents in his mother’s closet the week before Christmas.
But my boys were so gosh-darn believing. They never questioned — not once. And the magic I set out to create felt more and more duplicitous. Could I tell Santa tales, while in the same breath bear testimony that the small porcelain child in a manger was in fact real flesh and blood, that he would grow to redeem all mankind? Like King Solomon, who was asked to decipher between two women as to which was the mother of a certain baby, where exactly was I going to slice my sword?
The past few years, I’ve been dropping hints as large as yule logs. I wrap Santa gifts in the same wrapping paper that’s been leaning against my wall for a month. When one of my sons asked me about myths, I piped in, “There are all sorts of myths that people choose to believe in. Santa Claus is one example.”
The problem is that our Western Culture seems bent on extending the life of Santa. We perpetuate the myth with all sorts of Christmas movies about believing, with Josh Groban crooning in the background. In fact, due to one “Polar Express,” my son who has already had the talk, the talk that traumatized us both for life, has gone back to believing in Santa Claus! Which means I will have to break his heart not once, but twice.
I have scaled back the Santa talk in recent years. It has done no good. My 3-year-old is the most adamant believer of them all. At our church Christmas breakfast he sat on Santa’s lap three times. He wants to know all about Rudolph, where he sleeps, what he eats, and what he’s doing at this exact moment as he waits for Christmas Eve to arrive.
In the midst of this, I have to give the Scrooge in me a little talking to. My children know the true meaning of Christmas. We have five graven images of Santa in our house, but we also have nine nativities. And as much as my kids love the gifts they get on Christmas morning (and I’m not kidding myself here — they love getting those presents), they also giggle at the anticipation of making and giving presents. They love the cookies and the music and the lights and all the things that to a child make Christmas such a beloved time of year.
When I was 5 we lived in Buffalo, N.Y., which seemed just a skip away from the North Pole. On Christmas Eve I climbed into my bunk bed and heard, right over my head, the prancing and pawing of eight tiny reindeer.
As a mother myself, I suppose I perpetuate the Santa myth because in my heart I still believe. I see wonder all around me, and it does not overshadow that brightest star in the sky, the one that foretold of the Christ child. It is in that spirit that we fill stockings, set out cookies and milk and place brightly wrapped parcels under the tree. I may not do it with the zeal and precision of earlier years, but I still want my kids to believe in Christmas magic, even if it doesn’t come in a bright red suit.