Earlier this month our school hosted a family Christmas party. The conference hall tables are set with white cloths and Christmas decorations. There is holiday music and a slideshow of family photos playing while we eat our potluck meal. And the potluck set on a long L of tables reminds me of Christmas day growing up, when we joined my mom’s extended family in a church basement or American Legion, all of the kids skimping on mains and sides to fill on cookies and fluffy marshmallow salads. Always the church basements or rented halls were a little chilly at the start, warmed after an uncle turned up the clanking heat or enough of us were gathered in one place, and the family Christmas party was like that this year, held on one of the coldest days yet.
We took the city bus to the stop at the bottom of the hill, and walked up to our school. We arrived early with a few others to set up, but most was ready. Justin filled the hot water dispenser for tea, and he and Gene sorted how to give a crowd their Sunday morning coffee (there’s a coffee maker in the business office, and they brewed pot after pot to fill a thermos dispenser). As families arrived with crock pots and serving platters we made room on the tables. Light conversation about holiday traditions or upcoming travel, a little commiseration about getting the kids out the door on time. But like the family Christmas gatherings of my childhood, once we are all arrived at the conference hall, any bumps or arguments of the morning are smoothed by the camaraderie of us just being together. We all made with our socks on or off, gloves remembered or forgotten, the dishes just right or a little burned.
I meant to start this piece about Santa Claus, but setting the scene gave me these connections to my growing up Christmas day celebrations. This is how my writing works. I drafted the Santa Claus piece in my mind while out on a run, but when I sit to commit the words, the words lead another way. Yesterday on a walk we were remembering our past Christmas days. On the beach in Australia, along the Gulf in Kuwait. Kenya, India. So I was already thinking to write about the holiday, and how Justin and I have made our own family celebration from our separate growing up traditions. Maybe those thoughts, and my own nostalgia (I want to spend a Christmas in Wisconsin, soon) are in the way of drafting the piece about Santa Claus.
So let me start again.
Before the family holiday party, I reminded Claire and Grant not to ruin Santa Claus for any of the other kids. Each year I say something similar at the start of December. I did not grow up in a Santa Claus family but I also did not feel compelled to correct the Santa Claus kids in my class, or to do anything but smile politely and nod when a bank teller or store clerk asked if I was excited for Santa to bring me a gift. I have a dim memory of once saying that my parents were the ones who brought me gifts, and the clerk and my mom laughing together. This kid is in on it.
I only became impatient with Santa Claus as a parent. The story of Saint Nicholas is beautiful, but he isn’t the Santa of songs or malls or holiday parties. But my real qualm is the lie. I don’t want to lie to my kids. And for years I could say to Claire and Grant that Santa is a fun story, but some families pretend the story is real. So don’t tell kids that Santa doesn’t exist. Please don’t call the Santa who shows up at our holiday party a fake. Keep your mouth shut, kids. Santa is the opiate of the child masses. Which takes me to the reason I resist this easy lie. I do believe God exists. I talk to God, I talk with my kids about God. We attend church as a family. I read that old book full of beautiful poetry, yearning, hard answers and wild, uncomfortable stories. Faith is a stretch. And as I live my faith for my kids to see, that they may know who God is by the way I walk through the days, I am aware that I am asking my kids to call real the very being many reject. But if I say Santa Claus is real and God is real, what happens one day in elementary or middle school when another kid wise to the unreality of Santa spoils the belief for my kids – do I still insist that this other, crazier story of God really is real, really? So I do not present God as pretend. God is God. Santa is a fun holiday story.
This year Claire asked did she have to sit on Santa’s lap. No, I said. (In light of the MeToo movement, is anyone still insisting their daughters and sons sit on an old man’s lap for the photo op? Sure. This is Santa, not your boss, CEO or director). Grant wanted to know the same. Look, I said, Neither of you have to sit on Santa’s lap. He’s going to give you a present. You can say thank you, smile for the camera, and that’s fine. Claire and Grant agreed to play the moment as they felt most comfortable.
While I didn’t stand in line at the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas, Dad’s company party had a Santa who gave generous gifts and we went a couple of times. I probably asked for art supplies. I might have admitted my unbelief to the man with a fake beard. As a kid, I remember feeling a little smug or superior that I understood Santa wasn’t real, not like God was real. I felt smug about God too. (That may be another essay entirely). For now, understand the intervening years blessedly stripped my pride, though I continue to swell and fall. What I want for myself and my kids is a wrestle with belief in God, and not smugness but humility as faith increases.
The only reason I am writing this at all is because a few days after the family Christmas party, Claire and I were walking to Hyundai department store after school to get black pants and a black shirt for her winter concert. The walk was longer than expected, we were cold, and Claire started a debate with her position that all kids should believe in Santa Claus. It isn’t fair that any kid shouldn’t get Santa Claus. It’s magical. At least the toddlers should have Santa Claus. I thought of the howling toddlers held in place on Santa’s lap for the quick photo while the other kids and parents laughed or made sympathetic faces. I thought of Claire and Grant during their own toddler years wanting nothing to do with the Santa Claus who showed up at holiday parties. I doubt most toddlers would protest being kept safe, away from the totally unfamiliar costumed man, magical or not. After I said this to Claire, that most toddlers didn’t seem to actually enjoy Santa very much and was it kind for parents to make their kids feel afraid, Claire repeated that Santa is fun, Santa is magical, before arriving at her point, that we should celebrate Santa too.
I like the story of Saint Nicholas, I said.
That isn’t Santa, she said.
You’re right, I said, But we can celebrate Saint Nicholas. We can give to the poor.
How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus? Why celebrate Christmas with coerced good behavior and wish lists when we could celebrate with an excess of giving to the least of these? Claire was unmoved. I get her feeling of loss. Every family has its culture, its beliefs that inform who we are, what we are about, and as kids we learn the differences between one family and the next, one way to believe and another, and as we grow we wonder and ask. Just as Claire was then doing. I tried again to explain why we didn’t do Santa. We don’t hide Santa from the kids. The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas we watch Santa movies: Miracle On 34th Street, The Santa Clause, Arthur Christmas, Elf. We like but don’t elevate Santa. And for years I just did not think this was a big deal to Claire or Grant. Then on this cold walk, Claire unraveled her certainty that because Santa is magical, it is cruel for parents not to let kids have him.
One day I will talk with Claire and Grant about ways I have failed as their parent. I told Claire that on our walk. There are things that I did wrong or feel badly about, I said. I apologize as I go, but one day when the kids are older, I will open a dialogue to address my own regrets and hear any hurts they harbor too. I value honesty. I value perspective. I value truth.
But I am not sorry my kids missed thinking Santa Claus is real. Claire, I said, You know I tell you the truth. She nodded. I said, You know I answer your questions. She nodded again. I said, Claire, I don’t want to lie to you. Sometimes I don’t tell you everything because of your age. But I don’t lie. That’s why we don’t do Santa. I don’t want to lie to you.
This did not soften Claire. She was belligerent at the injustice of me keeping Santa Claus from her, at ruining Christmas magic. Just suck it up, Mom, Claire yelled at me. Call it a Christmas miracle I did not push my screaming daughter in the river. Instead I thought for a moment. I sat down at the edge of the path, even though it was cold and we both wanted to get the errand done, have dinner. I sat down because sometimes I need to physically still my body to really know what to do or say next. I wasn’t bothered by Claire questioning our decision to skip Santa, but I was upset at the tone, the irrational banging on and nonsensical yelling that I needed to just suck it up. If I laughed, the conversation would end and Claire would be too wounded to hear anything I said. If I yelled, I would only fuel Claire’s anger. Oh the many crucibles of parenting.
What I did was say I am sorry she feels like she got left out of something fun. I am sorry she feels gypped a dose of magical thinking. She softened a little. And then I repeated that I am not sorry we didn’t pretend Santa was real. Before Claire could relaunch her lines, I asked what all of this was about. Why is this a question now? What prompted this conversation? Claire told me she is practicing debate. Fifth graders are working their way toward presenting arguments about the urgency of environmental problems, and how to share potential solutions. So they are practicing debate strategies. Telling someone to suck it up is not a good strategy, I said. She laughed. Really, I said, Don’t say that again to me. We walked on. By the time we reached Hyundai department store, our feet were cold. We were hungry. We sat side by side at a noodle counter.
I know the conversation isn’t over. Maybe Santa Claus isn’t a big deal, but there are other ideas we explore too, because ideas and beliefs inform our actions. I don’t think it is a mistake to make Santa a story, or to emphasize the greater work of Saint Nicholas, or to altogether axe Elf on the shelf in favor of Christ in a manger.
Because I started the writerly asides: Here I wonder how to end the piece. I want to go on about my own parenting questions. There are lines I draw that may prove inconsequential. Santa seems like such a stupid argument. But I remember a colleague telling me he was devastated when he learned Santa isn’t real. Why would parents risk that betrayal? As for magical thinking, isn’t childhood woven through with pretend and fantasy by way of practicing how to be a person? Even now, at age thirty-eight I live in stories. I crave fantasy. Simple fantasy constructed in a moment, like gorgeous hair, or smart conversation. Wild fantasy constructed over years, like a craftsman house I inherit in Seattle or a collection of my best work. I am a fan of magical thinking. I like to think how what is real might tilt just so at the unfurl of a thought or prayer. And perhaps because I write, drink too much wine on occasion, and talk freely, my imagination is no mystery to friends and family. (At a revision of this piece, I would parse imagination and magical thinking. Or cut this altogether).
Here is where I am, a few days after Christmas: At my kitchen table. Dinner is in the oven. I am eating blueberries and pomegranate arils and have already had my small fear of the day, wondering if Justin and I will make it through marriage and parenting and still like one another in fifteen years. God have mercy. This morning I thought how to end this essay. This is probably not how to end this essay, but if my aim is to generate (churn/ toss on the page/ draft/ spit/ fling) thirty-nine pieces before I celebrate thirty-nine years, well: cannot be picky. One day, maybe, this gets revised. One day, maybe, I’ll say it perfectly. But saying things just so keeps me from sharing here. That isn’t fair to my practice. It isn’t fair to the process. One day I’ll write another essay about Santa Claus and you will recognize a few lines from this first piece. And one day Claire will argue about more than Santa Claus, with such conviction and clarity she won’t need to shout to be understood.
Four of thirty-nine stories. 2379 words, including asides. I’m counting it all. Drafted over a week, mostly during a two hour chunk the day after Christmas.