Warning: spoiler alert! If you "believe", DO NOT READ!
Still with me? Ok then. I can't remember believing in Santa Claus, ever. I am certain that when I was very, very little I did believe in Santa, flying reindeer and entrances via chimneys. But at the ripe old age of 6, I had it all figured out.
I'm a first-born, smarty pants, practical, no-nonsense kind of girl. Was then and am now. I'd seen the globe and heard the stories of Santa visiting all the houses around the world in one night and it didn't make sense to me. Impossible. Magic you say? I don't believe in magic. Logically, Santa couldn't do what everyone was claiming. And the North Pole? Come on! A toy shop manned by elves? Reindeer training camp? I'm sorry, I couldn't buy it.
So I had my suspicions and then they were confirmed one Christmas Eve decades ago. My sisters and I were snuggled (cute word for packed like pajamed sardines) in one bed. This was a Christmas tradition. Sweet isn't it? I'm sure my parents had an ulterior motive when suggesting this sweetness. Easier to watch one bedroom door than three. Secrets must be kept from the children. Surprises must wait until dawn.
I couldn't sleep. My sisters could. So I stared at the ceiling and wondered what the morning would bring and that's when I heard sounds. Noises. Voices. Familiar voices. I figured out quick as a flash that my mommy and daddy were Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
It wasn't a sad revelation. It only confirmed what I had already thought. Santa isn't real. The sleigh, the sack, the wishes coming true. None of it was real. I fell asleep quickly. I could relax. No fear that Santa would pass by our house because I had been naughty, I knew my parents had pulled through.
I played along the next morning and the next year and the next. I didn't dare admit my disbelief. Although Santa wasn't real, presents were and I wanted them. No Santa, no presents. Know Santa, know presents. I remember those Christmas Eves of pretending to sleep for my sisters' sake but listening to the ruckus just outside the bedroom door. I heard the metal clanging of a new swing set being forced into the frozen ground. I knew that when the phone rang, it was an aunt or uncle coordinating pick ups of gifts hidden at our house and vice versa. For hours there would be sounds of doors closing, cars starting and cardboard ripping. Finally, silence. They were done. I waited as long as I could and then eased myself from the sardine tin, silently opened the door and crept down the hall. I always had the first peek of Christmas.
My parents knocked themselves out at Christmas. They assembled and arranged, they wrapped and displayed. My mother wrapped our Santa gifts in paper not seen on any other presents. She'd saved a roll just for Santa's presents. She wrote our names in Claus-like cursive on special tags. Mom went to great lengths to grant every wish, to wrap those wishes up beautifully and to make Christmas morning magical.
In time, my two sisters figured out that Mom and Dad were Santa. We confessed to Mom that we knew Santa wasn't real. I suppose most mothers are a bit sad when they realize their children are growing up and they are too big and too bright to believe. But my mother is not most mothers and I offer that as a compliment. I recall her saying something like, "Good, I was tired of Santa getting all the credit."
We asked if she would hold back a few special presents and put them out for us, like Santa would, and she agreed. I'm realizing now that maybe it's not that we loved Santa, it's that we loved surprises. One year, our family was up late on Christmas Eve, talking and telling stories, unaware of the midnight hour. My mom finally said, "If y'all want me to do Santa Claus then y'all need to go to bed. I'm tired." We scattered like mice to our respectable bedrooms, physically too big to squeeze into a single bed any longer.
I'm a big girl now with two boys of my own. Two boys who expect Santa Claus to visit our house in the late hours of the 24th (or the wee hours of the 25th, depends on what time those two boys go to bed.) I say two boys who expect but I really can't speak for Zach. We've not sold him on Santa. We're still trying to sell Zach on our world, why would we confuse him with make-believe. Jake, on the other hand, is either gullible enough to believe or savvy enough to pretend (like his mother did.)
I play Santa Claus like my mom did. I buy a special roll of wrapping paper and keep it back just for Santa's presents. I write names in Claus cursive and use fancy ribbon to attach the tags. Action Andy assembles and I arrange and we make it magical. But while I do this, I think back to what made my childhood Christmases so special and it was never Santa.
It was sitting on the kitchen counter with my sisters making a big batch of roll out sugar cookies and an even bigger mess. It was sitting on my older cousin's knee, er, I mean Santa's knee, at the Sears Catalog shop and trying not to laugh. It was clutching a candle at the Christmas Eve service, singing all 4 verses of Silent Night and holding back the tears. It was a huge Christmas Eve dinner at Ma and Pa's house with all the aunts, uncles and cousins. It was wondering how a bunch of grown-ups could take so long to eat a meal when my cousins and I were circling the pile of presents like sharks.
It was going home, getting pajamas on and begging to open one, just one, present before bedtime. It was Mom giving in but insisting on choosing the one gift. We opened toothbrush holders. It was Christmas morning with bleary-eyed parents feigning surprise as their children opened gifts from so called-Santa. It was smiling at the Wal-mart price tags Santa sometimes left on those presents.
It was a Christmas day nap at 9 a.m and then a big breakfast. It was loading up in the suburban and driving around town. Stopping by the homes of friends and family unannounced, barging through unlocked back doors, anxious to see what they'd found under their tree.
It was the Nativity scene we set out every year. The one with the gray moss on the top of the stable. The one with a ceramic baby Jesus. The one that reminded me of a truly magical night thousands of years ago. It was the good will toward men I saw in my parents' actions on Christmas and all the days before and after.
As I plan Christmas for my own family I wonder what my boys will remember. Will it be the Lego sets and the snow globes? Maybe the Nerf arsenal Action Andy has acquired? Could it be the cool Crocs I scored at the mall today? Will they recall the candlelight services we attended, the beautiful Nativity scene we inherited from Andy's grandmother? How we danced to O Come Let Us Adore Him on a stage that is our kitchen floor? I don't know. As parents we shop for memory-making items and we plan for magical moments but it's a gamble knowing what sticks.
I don't believe in Santa but I do believe in a baby. I believe the baby grew up and did something almost unbelievable. And I believe my dad celebrates Christmas every year with the birthday boy Himself while we celebrate here.
Thanks Mom and Dad for all those Christmases. Thanks for the memories that I recall and for all the presents I can't. And thanks for beliefs that stick.