Christmas Eve. Sitting by the tree next to the fireplace, we told Joey that Santa would be coming down the chimney soon to deliver presents. Totally unanticipated, a look of terror stretched across my son’s small face. Not yet able to articulate his thoughts with nuance, he deconstructed them to their most basic element. “No!” he almost shouted. Shaking his head vigorously, he repeated it several times. “Nuh uh! No!”
‘Don’t you want Santa to come tonight?” Again, he shook his head signaling his unambiguous answer. “But Joey, Santa Clause is good. He loves children, especially good boys like you! He’s probably the kindest man who ever lived!” Every attempt to alleviate our little boy’s fear proved fruitless.
I asked Joey if he would like me to call Santa and ask him not to come to our house. With a look of great relief, Joey answered yes. With Joey and his mother by my side, I took the phone and dialed the North Pole. There was no one on the other end of the line, but fortunately Santa had an answering machine. I left a message for him, letting him know that he did not need to stop by our house. When I hung up the phone, I explained to Joey that Santa had already left, but maybe Mrs. Clause or one of the elves would pick up the message and let Santa know he could bypass us. Joey was much relieved.
The next morning, it was very quickly apparent that Santa did not get the message. As it happened, that was a good thing. Joey was utterly delighted when he saw a sparkling new rocking horse that had somehow magically made it down the chimney. There were other gifts, too, like the blow-up innertube sled and similar childish treasures I can no longer remember so many years after the fact. But from that morning on, Joey never feared another visit from Santa Clause.
Our son is an only child. As such, he has been fairly protected from the disillusionment and cruel honesty that sometimes comes from having older siblings. I truly believe he has retained a level of innocence that is rare among his peers. That was certainly true when it came to the magic of Christmas and Santa Clause.
I clearly remember the Christmas when I was eight years old. That was the year my mother told me that Santa Clause did not really exist, that the gifts he brought were actually given by Mom and Dad. I had older siblings, and although I had some repressed skepticism, perhaps encouraged by them, I preferred not to let those doubts come to the forefront of my consciousness. Still, when Mom let the cat out of the bag, I answered, “Uh, yeah, I know that.” Game over, no harm done.
That’s what I had expected from my son, too. I was soon to find out, however, that no two individuals are alike, not even a father and his son.
By the time Joey was in fourth grade, we decided it was time to settle the issue. Surely, most of his friends were already aware of the truth of Santa. We did not want to subject our son to potential derision by those who would make fun of one who still believed in Santa Clause. We assumed he already had his doubts, and we would simply be confirming what, down deep, he already understood.
It was just a couple of days before Christmas. We were finishing our Saturday morning breakfast when the subject of Santa Clause came up. Joey said something about Santa, how he was probably such a good man that he was turned into an angel, and that’s why he is able to do so much in one night. My wife looked at me and gave me her consent with an almost imperceptible nod.
“Joey, we are actually Santa Clause,” I said. “The gifts you get from Santa are actually from us.”
In an instant, we realized we had misjudged his understanding of Santa Clause. The look on his face reminded me of that Christmas Eve so many years earlier. The expression was similar, although the cause was the opposite. It wasn’t fear of the man in the red suit. It was mourning that he was not real. Tears welled up in his eyes and soon poured down his cheeks. He looked heartbroken. “What about A.J. and Alec? Do you give them their gifts, too?” No, their mom and dad give the Santa gifts to them. That’s how it works. When children get gifts from Santa, it is really their parents who are giving them.
The tears would not stop. Sadly, the magic did. “What about the Easter Bunny?”
“That’s us, too.”
“The Tooth Fairy?”
More tears. We had to do something, say something.
“Joey, here is what you need to know about Santa Clause. There really was a Santa Clause once. His name was Saint Nicholas. He is also called Saint Niklaus in some countries, and that is where we get the name Santa Clause. Saint Niklaus was a great and kind man. He would go to areas where poor people lived and tell the parents to leave stockings, or socks, hanging by their front doors on Christmas Eve. Then, in the middle of the night, he would bring small gifts and food and load them in the stockings. That’s how our tradition of bringing gifts began. When we give the gifts, we are also copying what happened that first Christmas, when the Wise Men brought gifts for the newborn Baby Jesus.
“Santa Clause may not be a real person anymore, but it is important that we share the spirit of Santa Clause. The real Santa was a kind man who was full of love for the people around him. He showed his love by helping the poor and giving gifts to the needy. We can make sure the spirit of Santa Clause lives on by caring for others and showing them love. Giving gifts is just one way that we can do that. So even though Santa Clause is not a real person now, his spirit lives on in the presents we give and the love we have for one another.” We had one of those big family hugs that happen far too infrequently. The tears began to dry up as the truth sank in.
Some of the magic of Christmas was lost for my son that morning. It is not entirely gone, however. It has simply changed its form. There is magic in love. There is magic in charity. There is magic in the words that were penned nearly 2,000 years ago,words that we still recite today: "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill toward men."
Christmas is still full of magic if we look for it. I think Joey knows that.