“Mom, is Santa Claus real?”
As parents, as purveyors of Christmas, we have all been asked. We all have an answer prepared.
There is a pact among parents. An unspoken arrangement. The magical spirit of Santa is our responsibility to maintain. We take our task very seriously- it is not about the gifts and the accolades- it’s about the magical spirit of Christmas and good deeds done long ago. So good were they, that we all signed up, with nary a second thought – to keep this legend going, generation after generation.
I am an Atheist, raised in an Agnostic household. For us, celebrating Christmas has never been religious in nature. It has been always been a time to see family we hardly knew (but all made a priority this one time of year), it has been about enjoying our favourite foods, spending time together, and creating an opportunity for joy, simply “because”. With Christmas culture all around us, signals received from our earliest recollection, we sort of get swept up into the chaos of Christmas without ever considering our reasoning. I would suggest this is also true for Christians, whose high holiday happens to fall on the Winter Solstice – an event I see every reason to celebrate. So much was Christmas a part of my childhood that I never even considered not celebrating it with my own children. I wanted them to experience the wonder of magic. I dreamt of how excited they would be descending the stairs…I forgot the burning question I had struggled with as a child from a poor family at Christmas, and of course, when I began the tradition I never expected to be raising a poor family at Christmas.
Their Christmases would OF COURSE be off the charts! I would spoil them and love them and shower them with whatever they coveted on Christmas morning. This is so much easier to do when they are 3.
Then real life happened.
At first we were a traditional family with two kids and two parents. Christmas was very traditionally red, green and white. My husband was particularly swept up in the spirit of the season and we were always the first to put up our Christmas tree and lights, and the last to take them down. We struggled a great deal financially in those early years, and Christmas became representative of a time of great stress. I could feel it approaching like the rhythm of wild buffalo. I braced myself. Every year we did the same thing. We made lists and plans. We got excited. We started to panic about money. We begged and borrowed to survive the financial assault of Christmas, because “it wasn’t the kids fault we can’t really afford this stuff”. And every year we struggled, crawled, and barely breathed until the tax return allowed us to clear off some debt and get back to the shallow end of the red. Of course, this also meant that we could never use that money to get ahead, or do anything useful, when we were always living one year behind our means.
When the kids were 3 and 7, separation became our reality. The financial hell of two, became the burden of one. For many years I fought to make those Christmases seem normal by continuing the pattern. I had practically no credit left and worked a middle of the night job to accommodate the needs of my kids. I began skipping bills and making payment plans and essentially drowning myself for the already depressing months of January, February and March, where luckily, winter itself brought mercy from some of my collectors.
As my kids were growing up and developing more complicated awareness – so too, were other kids. Where “what did you get for Christmas?” was once answered enviably with “a toboggan” or “skates” they now heard things like “$1000!” ,“A 50” TV for my room!”. You see, this pact among parents and grandparents alike, this quiet indoctrination into the retail Christmas world, comes with no Mission Statement. There are no guidelines, rules or even limits. This means that this Universal idea that we are selling…this tradition intended to bring joy to our children, is sometimes their first realization that society lives out of balance. I remember being so thrilled after Christmas when I was a child. Excited to get back to school and see all my school friends-none of whom lived in my neighbourhood. I travelled to attend, and many of my peers came from affluence. I didn’t totally know it then, but I was starting to understand. I remember rattling off my list of rewards from Santa and being surprised to hear how Jamie got a trip to Disneyworld from Santa.
“Wow!” I thought. “I wonder how much better at “being good” Jamie is, and how can I replicate that for next year??” Now I was lucky enough to be spoiled at Christmas. Just like myself, my single mother wheeled and dealed and managed to fit as many presents as she could under that tree. I loved them all. But I was sure I might be doing something wrong to earn socks and pyjamas rather than that coveted Disney trip! And Jamie had already been to Disney! Somehow none of this particular piece of the Holiday charade remained fresh in my memory…Until it became the experience of my children.
In our household the tradition was always that there was one, big amazing gift, always from Santa. There might be many, but the biggest and best and most desired presents, came with a special tag, handmade by Santa himself, prepared with special wrap, and easily identified year after year. The rest of the gifts came from other family members, Mom, the dog, the cat, a brother. The glory was always reserved for Santa. In recent years I found myself breaking under the pressure to win smiles with presents.
Last year I accepted that Christmas-Day-gift-opening was the most I could accomplish. I passed on the larger family gathering altogether, practically sick under the weight of my inability to participate. With Christmas in two households, it was easy to skip casually over the subject of Grandma’s house and say “We will do it after Christmas”. Which was the plan, but it never happened. It didn’t happen because, of course, January, February and March….well, those are drowning months. The past three Christmases have been spent in quiet tears once my boys have left to share a more lucrative Christmas at their Dad’s house. My failure to keep up my part of the pact, weighed heavily on me.
So when I was tucking my son in to bed last week, and he said to me “Do you want to know what I want Santa to bring for Christmas?” I had no idea that the gig was about to be up. “Tell me” I said.
Well, my 11 year old son is a gamer and what he would most like for Christmas is a very fancy, high speed computer with graphic capabilities and processing speeds far beyond the hand-me-down desktop in our house. I told him “that seems like a very expensive gift to ask for. I don’t think that’s going to be possible. Even Santa has limits”.
Except, he knows someone who got that system from Santa.
He knows it can be done.
He asks me in a quiet voice “Does this mean that you are Santa Mom? Because you don’t have enough money?” and there in the darkness, I took a deep breath……
“Well, in a way I am Santa. And because you are asking me to tell you the truth and I value your trust in me, I will tell you the Christmas secret. A long time ago, there really was this amazing guy. But he was just a guy. He was mortal and he died…But because he was so wonderful, they Sainted him and all the parents in the world decided to create a pact to celebrate the magical spirit of this great guy who had died. And every year, we celebrate his generosity by carrying out the same acts that he carried out”.
He was silent for some time.
“Honey, do you have any questions?”
“Well, I guess that makes more sense. You know, us being kind of poor and all”
….and there it was.
I explained how relieved I was that he was now old enough to know the magical secret of Christmas and how badly I felt when I worried he would think Santa didn’t know how good he had been in some of those leaner years. He suddenly understood that despite us not having money, I had somehow still managed all those gifts. His guilt upon understanding this nearly killed me. In the end, it was exactly that fact that brought this annual mystery crashing down. He got quiet again. For what felt like forever he remained with his back to me. Pensive. Sad.
“Did you eat the cookies, too?”
“Yes baby, I did.”
With that he rolled towards me and gently placed his arm around me.
His voice was sad. I was sad. The magical part of Christmas was no longer alive in our house now that its’
youngest member had been given the truth. We both fell asleep heavy with those thoughts.
The next morning, my son was his regular self as though no conversation had transpired. If anything, he seemed lighter, carefree. I began to realize all the things that would be better now that we had this piece of truth between us. I would no longer have to break my neck trying to achieve the impossible – both kids know that we don’t have money to throw around. We will celebrate the way we always have, but with a more grounded set of expectations and appreciation. We have planned to exchange handmade gifts with nieces and grandparents this year, as we did when I was a child on more than one occasion- also by necessity. Gone are the confused questions a child asks himself about why Santa seemed so much more generous to people with bigger houses. No more was there a sense of mistrust around Christmas.
Do I regret that I instilled this tradition in my kids? No. I regret that I did it so freely without any clear thought or plan. I regret that I didn’t start focusing long ago on our family’s unique reasons to celebrate each other, separate from pretty trees and Elves on shelves…
As usual I will find a way to put gifts in boxes this year. We will decorate the house as we always have. My youngest son will still screech with delight over at least one thing under the tree this year and it will come addressed with a handmade tag, like it always has. Even so, I think his greatest gift this year will be the liberation from comparison that Christmas encourages amongst our kids. He has told me he wants to get a job. He wants to help me by paying some bills. He doesn’t want me to feel worried all the time. Instead of breaking down in tears at his words, instead of allowing the guilt of failure to swallow me, I realize this:
Compassion is his gift to me this year.
I bask in the warm feeling of knowing that my son is a caring person. I can’t ask for more than that. My oldest seems shocked when I inform him “the little one knows”.
“You told him the secret Mom?” We share a quiet look, and remember.
We reminisce about the moment I told him the secret. We both remember every detail. The story went much the same. His question was started with “Now I want to ask you something but you have to promise to tell me the truth. It’s important”, and so, I had informed him of the pact at only 10 years old.
While the worst part of the Holiday Blues will now be avoided, I know there are so many Moms and Dads like me. So many who will wheel and deal and sell things they cherish to keep up their part in the pact. There are so many families who are blessed with more resources than they need, who will not consider for a single moment how they create an image of Santa that the rest of the Parent Team cannot maintain. I can only hope those parents spend as much time teaching compassion as they spend dollars to demonstrate their love. This year, I hang up my red hat.With all the hats I have to wear in a day, I won’t miss it.
Pyjamazon wishes a Happy Holiday to all, however you may celebrate.