Monday, December 9, 2013

The Season for Jolly Old St. Nick?

Last week, the bigger Es composed their carefully crafted letters to Santa.

E1 arrived at my house telling me how Momma had helped her write it and she asked for a Furby. For much of that day she was consumed with the letter she had written and the idea of its magical journey to the North Pole. At 4, the lines between magic and reality blur quite easily and she never questions how a fat man in a red suit can travel with his reindeer around the world on Christmas Eve.

It's a magic I never knew because I grew up without Santa Claus.

That may seem like a weird confession, or in some ways a sad one, but we simply didn't ever have the myth of Santa Claus in my house when I was a child. It wasn't a matter of not wanting to tell us a lie, my parents weren't that progressive. Because despite the lack of Santa Claus, we put our lost baby teeth under our pillow to be replaced by coins during the night. But Santa was a bigger deal and one never had the opportunity to experience.

I know part of it was due to the fact that there was a time when my dad worked during the hours that we would have been expecting to open gifts from Santa, but I think it was a deeper philosophical difference. Any way, we never believed in the magic of Santa. I don't even recall any explanation beyond the fact that we weren't to reveal that knowledge to other children.

I can still remember going to visit Santa as part of a larger family outing and having to pretend that I believed he was more than a guy in a red suit because my cousins thought he was the real deal. Even more strongly, I remember Christmas Eve gatherings where the other children were talking about what Santa would bring and worried about getting home and in bed in time for the sleigh to stop at their house. We had no such worries and could have played all night.

We were probably a bit smug in our secret knowledge that our cousins, younger and older, were being misled. Like adults, we knew the truth. The gifts under the tree came out of a closet where we hadn't found them. We weren't trying to convince some guy at the North Pole that we were good enough to have that most desired gift, we were convincing our parents who already knew exactly how naughty or nice we had been all year.

As a result, perhaps, we always had more reasonable expectations for what we would find under the tree on Christmas morning. Although presents didn't come by sleigh, they still did not appear until we were asleep for the night. We would wake up in the morning to find our tree transformed -- two stacks of gifts beneath it. The unbearable waiting for our parents to get up and knowing we dared not disturb them is a strong Christmas memory.

There was still magic in Christmas.

While I later appreciated the realistic view of the gift-giving that living without Santa gave me, I wondered about the magic I missed. When I had children I wanted to somehow create the magic I never experienced for them. It was a struggle, since I was working from what was, in many ways, a blank slate. Although I knew the Santa stories, making them real was a different game. Having never been on the receiving end, I wasn't sure about the giving end either.

Somehow I managed some mix of what I had and what most of my cousins and friends had. Santa was a magical Christmas Eve visitor who would grant a gift wish, but only one. Everything else under the tree came from me. (Seriously, even when they lived in a two-parent home their dad never shopped and was just as surprised as they were.)

When they got up on Christmas morning, Santa would have filled their stockings, which were hung on their doors because I didn't have a fireplace, and left their gift with the stocking. When they got old enough to tackle Christmas morning earlier than I wanted to get up (when they were small, I was up waiting on them), they were allowed to open their stockings and Santa gifts without waiting. At a decent hour, they could come wake me, if I wasn't already up.

Then, like my own childhood, we would go to the tree which had been transformed overnight with gifts. It always felt like a fair balance of magic and reality and one that let me take credit for most of the gifts I had bought. Like it had for me, it kept them from asking for everything in the Sears Wishbook (do you remember those?) or expecting that the magic of Santa would bring them an outlandish gift that was totally unaffordable.

Now the girls look forward to the same kind of Christmas, and I realize that in my own stumbling way, I created my family's traditions, forging new ground without an inkling that what I was doing was going to be more than me and my children, but, so far, their children, and perhaps children of future generations as well. The Elf on a Shelf has joined the holiday celebration at their home, bringing a few extra gifts and bit more magic. I wonder if he will become part of the holiday tradition the Es will continue with their children and what new variations they may find to enjoy.

I'm glad I opted for the magic, because I think kids need a little magic. They need to believe in things they never see, or touch. Not really because of things like Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny, but because it allows them to dream and have faith in things that don't always make sense. In a world where we make our children grow up faster all the time, giving them that magic for a while is a gift in and of itself.

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