It was a strange juxtaposition, now that I think of it. Back in the years when we celebrated Christmas at the little white church by the side of the road, every Christmas program ended with a visit from Saint Nick. Bearded, dressed in a fur-trimmed red suit and black boots, he looked much like the Santa greeting children at the mall. Yet somehow, as he settled down on the altar at the front of the church and invited the children to crawl into his lap, he didn’t seem at all out of place.
For the folks at the little white church, Jesus truly is and always has been “the reason for the season”. But, they embrace a Christmas tradition that some might consider contrary to what a body of believers should tolerate, let alone celebrate.
I’ve spent most of my parenting years settling for myself the role Santa Claus should play in the celebration of Christ’s birth. I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum — from propagating the myth to standing firmly in denial. My vacillating has caused more than a little confusion in our household.
I don’t really remember the revelation that ended the fantasy for me as a child, but I poignantly recall how my oldest son grappled with the tragedy of the man-becoming-myth.
My son’s awakening came at the hands of a classmate, who let him in on the secret that Santa was really Mom and Dad. When he tearfully confronted me, he was less devastated by the loss of his fantasy than he was by the fact his parents HAD LIED TO HIM.
So what about the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy, he asked? He demanded to know all the ways we had deceived him. And why would we think it was okay to lie in the first place? It was a tough conversation.
Already a principled thinker, this son sat alone on the stairs in the dark and brooded over the lying, the scheming, the pretending that had gone on his whole long life (all of six years at this point). He couldn’t handle the truth that Dad had eaten the cookies he left for Santa, that we had made the reindeer prints in the snow and pretended to hear footsteps on the roof. Let alone the fact we’d signed Santa’s name on all those presents we had bought for him and his brother.
We had dug quite a hole for ourselves in our quest to make Christmas everything the television shows and newspaper ads said it should be. And it had been fun.
But the gig was up. Big brother announced that his little brother deserved to know the truth, too. If Santa wasn’t real for him, then he shouldn’t be real for anyone in our family.
I wasn’t ready for that. I enjoyed seeing the delight in that little one’s eyes — in both their eyes until recently — as he looked forward to Santa’s visit on Christmas Eve. I wanted our youngest son’s fantasy to remain intact, at least for a little bit longer.
So I cut a deal with big brother. I appealed to his little boy greed. I told him that, even though he knew Santa wasn’t real, if he would pretend just a little longer, “Santa” would fill his stocking and bring him the gifts on his wish list. And he could be our helper. He would be in on the secret — a co-conspirator in the Christmas fantasy.
Big brother agreed, and we sealed the deal with a spit handshake.
With a wink and a knowing smile passing between us, Christmas morning went off without a hitch. But that was the last year Santa Claus made clandestine visits to our Christmas tree.
Two more sons came along and by then we were celebrating Christmas in the little church by the side of the road. In this season of our lives, we never pretended that the bearded man who visited church during the Christmas program was anything other than a kind fellow in a costume.
I’ve never felt we cheated our younger boys out of Christmas, just because they knew Santa wasn’t real. We read the requisite Christmas books and watched the TV specials and made the visit to the mall, but our youngest two sons always knew Santa was make believe — like Ninja turtles or Pinocchio. We still said he came down the chimney and ate cookies, that the stockings hung from the mantle would be magically filled by morning. We even wrote “From Santa” on a couple of packages under the tree. It was just a fun game, and they knew it.
And Jesus was always at the center of Christmas.
I took something precious away from my oldest son’s encounter with the truth all those years ago, something that helped put everything into perspective.
Tucking that wise six-year-old into bed on Christmas Eve, he gave me reason to believe truth trumps myth. Here’s his truth, as I remember it:
“I know Santa isn’t real,” said the Wise One as he hugged me good night on that long-ago Christmas Eve. “It’s okay that you and Dad lied. But I know something that IS real. Jesus is real. Right Mom?”
That’s right, Son.