By Michelle Deininger
Our sixth-grader posed the question last week: “Is Santa real?”
She had poked at the topic for a couple of years, asking logistical questions that invited easy, oblique answers. The tap-dance had apparently ended.
“What do you mean?” I replied, buying a second or three to organize my thoughts. I tried unsuccessfully to recall what I had told her brother four years earlier.
She repeated her question.
When her brother had asked the same thing, also during sixth grade, my response was something I wish I’d written down. Now, at a wiped-out, post-menopausal 52, I felt only relief, glee and anticipation for the massive reduction in my December workload. The holiday run-up would be so much less stressful without all the nerve-wracking subterfuge. I couldn’t wait for her to get to the school bus so I could text my husband the news.
All of that ran through my brain before I had even bothered to finesse an answer. As she continued to wait, I put my fireside champagne-sipping fantasy on hold and dragged my thoughts back to the conversation.
“Well, he is real in the sense that he’s the magic of parents’ love. But is there actually a man going down chimneys all over the world in a single night? No. You can probably tell that just couldn’t happen, right?”
It was far from my best work. But her eyes sparkled at having unlocked an existential secret. She wasn’t shocked, but she hadn’t already known for certain. As her thoughts organized around this new reality, more questions began to flow.
“How did you do that handwriting?”
“I used my left hand and wrote in cursive.”
“So when Santa bought us expensive things, that was you spending YOUR money?”
“Does Jace know?”
“Why don’t you guys seem more tired on Christmas?”
“Because we’re too excited about watching you.”
When I was in fifth grade and my brother was in third, our mom had primary custody, so we were with her. She was out late on Christmas Eve at a friend’s, so we put ourselves to bed. In the morning, we couldn’t get her up, despite our prodding and tugging. We eventually got tired of waiting, unwrapped our few gifts, looked them over, then carefully wrapped them back up. She got out of bed at 11:30 a.m. and didn’t notice what we’d done.
Even before the divorce my parents were not skilled in covert Christmas ops; I had Santa figured out in second grade.
My husband’s parents are also divorced. Though that came later in his life, and his mom never overslept on Christmas day, and his present piles were huge, he recalls holidays marred by tension and turbulence.
We grew up in separate parts of the country in socioeconomic circumstances that differed greatly, but coped with our situations similarly, by attaching ourselves to friends’ homes and families—people and places with more than enough to share of what we craved.
As parents, our plan was to raise the bar on our own holiday magic; to make our kids’ Christmases unassailably dreamy both on and under the surface. Nothing insane, just basic delights: decorations, cookies, community gatherings, music, surprises, traditions, fun, a focus on happiness and harmony.
We’ve done it. Every year. There have been outings to The Nutcracker, and DIY home runs such as the present we partially buried in snow outside to look like it fell off the sleigh. We’ve built traditions with friends around open houses, cookie-decorating parties and hunting for hideous Yankee swap gifts. We’ve built a holiday food Hall of Fame (Trader Joe’s cinnamon rolls!) and played Michael Buble holiday songs out the wazoo and hung a cherished advent calendar and conjured piles under the tree that were not too big and not too small. Maybe a little too big.
We’ve gone to bed so late and gotten up so early.
My daughter’s questions kept coming.
“Wait, so when we put cookies out for Santa that’s like fuel for you guys to stay up and do presents?”
The cookie and carrot platter for Santa and the reindeer, a group project fussed over at an hour when we were desperate to get the kids to bed so we could hurriedly decimate it. Once kids were down, Pete nibbled the cookies because I was stuffed, breaking some into bits, scattering crumbs messily around and pouring Santa’s cup of milk down the drain. Then we’d race off to put finishing touches on the surprises we planned for each other. Reconvening later, we stuffed stockings (including the dog’s) and collected gifts hidden around the house, hustling them into the living room while listening for I-can’t-fall-asleep footsteps.
It’s all been glorious and satisfying, a feeling of coming to a blazing, beautiful hearth after a childhood spent with noses pressed to others’ windows. But it’s also a mental and physical marathon every year. I wouldn’t change it, but I won’t miss Santa.
“Can we still make glittery oatmeal for the reindeer?” My daughter put ‘reindeer’ in air quotes, the charade suddenly an entertaining bit of theater.
My husband hates glitter more than almost anything on earth.
“When I was younger I would have been mad at you for telling me about Santa.”
“Like eight or nine.”
“It’s not gonna ruin my love for Christmas. And I can’t wait till I’m a mom.”
Giving the kids childhoods they’d dream of recreating someday is, so far, the achievement of which I’m most proud in my life. We’ve taken good care of each other. They’ve kept us playing tricks, childlike, as we’ve labored to turn them into adults who know in their bones what joy feels like, and how to fill a home with love.
As my children mature and peek behind more of life’s curtains, they will no doubt make their own traditions. Maybe (I hope) they’ll consider doing a little bit less than we did, for their sanity as well as the health of the planet, and start their families a tad earlier if possible, since middle age is no joke.
“So is there any magical being in the world other than the Easter bunny?”
I was heading to the garage with the recycling when she lobbed that one, which made it easy to pretend not to have heard. When I came back in, she had moved on. A few days later she returned to it.
“Wait, is the Easter bunny real?”
“This is all piecing together,” she mused.
I told her she’ll love doing these things for her kids someday, and she grinned at me in anticipation.
Michelle Deininger is a writer and former newspaper journalist living in Park City, Utah and planning a chill Christmas involving chocolate fondue and no hunting for gifts she hid too well weeks earlier. Her writing lives at www.moonlightmile.blog.
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