“Kids believe in Santa; adults believe in childhood.”
Sometimes childhood doesn’t last as long as it should. As I watch our oldest granddaughter—about two-and-a-half years old—get excited at the mere mention of the name “Santa Claus”, I cannot help but to get sucked into her enthusiasm for the jolly fat guy. Yet, at the same time, when I am alone and contemplating life, I cannot help but to mourn the fact that this enthusiasm for good ol’ Saint Nick is not going to last long. Childhood ends and with it the death of many of the most cherished symbols of that time.
For years, when confronted by others about the existence of Santa Claus I took the metaphysical route in answering their question. I would state with certainty that Santa existed as long as one believed in the existence of Santa. For me this worked because I did not have to be the “bad guy” who was popping some person’s dream and flooding it with the cold hard reality of life. And, this worked for many years, especially in those years of my life that ended with B.C.—“before children”.
When our children came into our lives, the high falutin metaphysical didn’t carry much weight any longer as they were certain in the existence of Santa Claus. Why wouldn’t they be? Their mother and father had perpetuated that existence through years of being the “spirit” of Santa through always making sure that Santa heard and responded to their Christmas desires. There were always gifts under the tree, mingle among the other gifts, bearing the name of Santa. There was always the half-eaten cookies and empty milk glass as evidence that the fat guy had made his dutiful stop at the Keener household. Evidence abounded . . . Santa existed. There is no arguing with a Keener—no matter what age that Keener might be—once they have set their mind to believing in something . . . even Santa Claus.
But, childhood ends.
It was the year our oldest child was in first grade that adulthood and reality reared its ugly head in the Santa Claus department. As the Christmas break neared at the elementary school he attended the teacher ran the kids through the time-honored tradition of asking the kids in the class to share what they were asking Santa Claus for Christmas. Listening to my son describe the activity I could imagine the awe upon all of the children’s faces as they share the grand hopes of what they were expecting Santa Claus to deliver under the Christmas tree. There wasn’t a kid in that classroom who didn’t have grand designs and hopes anchored to the jolly fat man come Christmas morning. With the ringing of the class bell signaling the end of the day and the start of the Christmas vacation all the kids ran home happily.
Of course it was a nice exercise in killing time for the teacher, but it was an open ended exercise . . . it would not be complete until the kids had the opportunity to share what Santa actually delivered on Christmas Day. This, of course, would not be done publicly in the confines of a classroom, but throughout that first day back from vacation on the playground, in the hallways, and lunchroom. It would be there that the truth would come streaming out . . . and, it was there that our oldest son began to lose his childhood.
There in the hallways, on the playground, and in the lunchroom, our son learned that not every child—his friends—did not get what they asked for from Santa. Oh, they might have gotten a gift from Santa but it was nothing close to what they had asked for or desired. Others got nothing at all from Santa. This is confusing for a little person who believes . . . who believes in Santa treating all good little boys and girls fairly . . . in rewarding them for being good. According to my son, all his classmates were in that category. “So,” he asked me, “why did I get everything I wanted from Santa and my friends didn’t? Why did some get presents and other nothing? Why did Santa do that?”
My first reaction, being a good father, was to refer him to his mother; but, unfortunately she was nowhere to be found and the kid was wanting answers. Answers I wasn’t wanting to share. Metaphysical mumbo jumbo doesn’t carry much weight with a first grader. With a swoosh you could hear the innocence of childhood fleeing the scene. This was one of those sucky moments of being a parent . . . probably right up there with the talk on “the birds and the bees”.
So . . . we talked. We talked about how unfair life could be. We talked about the fact that there are poor people in the world. We talked about how much one could hurt for others, especially when we love them whether they are family or friends. We talked about hope and dreams. And, we talked about the fact that Mommy and Daddy were really Santa . . . and, we talked about what Santa meant to him. But, you know, it isn’t easy talking when you see those tears welled up in a little one’s eyes . . . and, you feel them wanting to burst from your own.
That was the day that Santa Claus died in our house. Rest in peace, Santa. That was also the day that we began to share a different story of Christmas even though it had always been running throughout since the children arrived in our lives . . . that was the story of God’s love for all of creation, for all people. We shared the fact that Santa doesn’t come to everyone’s house, but that God does. We shared the Christmas Story and how it bursts into our lives and changes us and the world around us. We shared a different “Santa” story . . . the story of Saint Nicholas and how the priest began the tradition of giving to those in need. We shared that it was not the gifts under the tree that were important, but the people gathered around the tree. We shared the love and the grace that the true gift of Christmas is supposed to be about. And, in the meantime, we shared the fact that Santa can live in our hearts for as long as we believe in him . . . that metaphysical stuff . . . in hopes that he would understand.
I cannot say that it was one of the easiest conversations I ever had with my son, but it was one of the most powerful and memorable ones. It is a conversation that has been lifted up every couple of years as the family has expanded with a son-in-law, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. It is one that I think lurks in the shadows of the Christmas season in many households and families when children are attempting to make sense of the propaganda of the commercial Christmas against the one that dwells in our hearts. Childhood is wonderful, but it is also shrinking all of the time. I do not remember whether or not I hugged my son after our heart-to-heart conversation, but I hope I did.
The time is coming again when the story of Santa’s death in the Keener family must be retold as the granddaughters continue to grow. They are sharp and smart little girls, and the day will come when what they believe and what they see doesn’t quite mesh . . . when friends do not receive what they ask Santa for, or receive nothing at all. Though I relish the joy and excitement of my two-and-a-half year old granddaughter when it comes to the ol’ jolly guy, I also know that the time will come . . . because that time will come.
Reality sucks, but the power of love and grace . . . the power of the Christmas Story . . . does not. Nor does the mind-blowing power of childhood suck. I relish the gift of the newest generation within the family that brings hope, belief, and Santa into the picture of life. I relish it because I believe in them . . . and, in childhood. Yeah, Santa died years ago, but the dude keeps on coming back . . . always providing us with an opportunity to connect and broaden the intimacy between generations as we discover together the true meaning and power of Christmas. If you believe . . . really believe . . . it can be so.