Devastated. The heart beat increasing. The tears welling up in the eyes. That was me, the day my son found out that the person who brought him presents for the past 10 years of his life was not in fact a big man in a red suit.
So let’s go back a little. When Rob and I talked about our plans for a family, we had decided quite a lot before the birth of our child as to how we would raise them, what we would say, and our thoughts on pretty much everything. We decided that no matter how difficult or awkward conversations would become, we would always tell our children the truth. There were a couple exceptions, but for the most part we were agreed that we would make it clear that our kids could always come to us for a straight answer and we would give it to them. Those small exceptions included figuring out the role beloved mythological characters would have in our children’s lives. We both agreed that the hardest part about reconciling the truth behind these enduring childhood characters was as kids once we figured out the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, everything else kind of unraveled. So we decided early on that we wouldn’t really push the other two so we would really have a fighting chance to play out the role of Santa for as long as possible.
So when he was old enough to understand we heavily focused on what we believe to be the true meaning and importance of Easter. In our faith, we believe as Christians that Easter is a celebration and remembrance of the day Christ was resurrected, three days after dying for our sins. In addition, we told Ben that there was an Easter Bunny. We explained that the Easter Bunny helped out children’s parents who couldn’t afford or were unable to fill their Easter baskets by doing it for them, but that we were able to, so we filled his Easter Basket. This seemed all well and good until my sister’s family was coming to visit us in DC. They had been financially struggling that year. Ben’s cousins had told him that their parents had said that the Easter Bunny might only be able to bring a few things for their Easter baskets. Our son of course felt the need to reassure them by saying, “No, you won’t even have to worry about it, the Easter Bunny will take care of everything. When parents don’t have enough money, the Easter Bunny takes care of everyone. It will be fine.”
Well, there you go! That was our first lesson in many, that to parent one child can often mean you are parenting many without even meaning it.
Then came the next challenge, but in my defense I think I was bamboozled!
I’m sure every child presents his or her parents with some fantastic challenges to keep the magic alive and my son was no exception. Why should he be? I know Rob had asked for a real life reindeer when he was a kid, why should Ben be any different.
Some of those parent challenges include Ben’s second year of taking a photo with Santa Claus at the mall. He was deathly afraid of the man in the red suit. We actually had to do a dress rehearsal! We took Ben over to Santa and he cried. We tried a second time, where Santa introduced himself. Ben seemed good until we tried to sit him on Santa’s lap. Once again, he started screaming and crying. The next time Santa talked to Ben as we walked by, called him by name, and asked him what he wanted for Christmas, but we didn’t even try to sit with Santa on that day. Finally after 4 rehearsal runs, Ben was ready to sit on his lap. Whew!
There was the year that Ben was intent on getting a Santa Claus action figure. When asked if he had seen one in the stores he responded, “Oh no, but it’s not a problem, because Santa has his own workshop. He can just MAKE one, don’cha know?”
Then there was the year he was especially particular in who he could divulge his list, “I know that the Santa I take pictures with is only a Santa helper, but I am going to check his ears to make sure he is a REAL Santa elf before I tell him anything!”
Nothing could prepare us for the year Rob was in Afghanistan, when Ben created his list for Santa just like he had done every year but topping his list prominently stated his wish for a baby brother. Aside from the obvious barriers preventing us from even trying to make Ben’s wishes come true, we had to figure out how to let him know that Santa just couldn’t grant him his number one wish. After much deliberation we decided a letter was the best route to go, and to go along with current technology, Santa sent Ben an email. Santa had explained that decisions about having children are solely to be made by moms and dads and God and that was not something he was able to give Ben for Christmas. Ben seemed satisfied with the response and was twice as excited to have obtained Santa Claus’s email! This of course would have been parenting mistake number #743, since it never occurred to me that I should probably check on the email for subsequent messages. It wasn’t until Ben mentioned in passing, “It’s funny I wrote a message awhile ago to Santa but he hasn’t written back.” I nonchalantly explained that perhaps he was busy gearing up for next year or maybe he took a vacation. Then I let a couple of days pass and of course diligently went to work on responding to my son’s emails to Santa.
Little did I know that the email from Santa was Ben’s turning point, that was his boost in Christmas spirit. The email was his weapon of choice to those kids on the bus who were trying to dissuade his faith in Santa Claus.
So fast forward just a little bit, the past couple of years confronted us as parents with so many new subjects to tackle. So many questions about relationships, puberty, and of course sex had crept into and laced our conversations since our arrival to Italy. We have handled them all in the same manner that we had agreed to many moons ago, with as much straightforward honesty that we could muster. I’d like to think that this trend will convince Ben that he can in fact come to us for anything and we will always give him the straight answer.
Now when it came to the subject of Christmas, I was able to pivot around the subject and manipulate in such a way that I wasn’t really lying but pretty much much walking the line. Rob, on the other hand, will profess that he too wanted to keep the magic going, but there was that small nagging part of his brain that felt defeated by the fact that the big guy had always gotten credit for all the cool gifts that he had spent so much of his time seeking out and finding. Much like a snag in sweater that starts out small, but with little effort unravels into a giant mess, I anticipated that I could not leave Rob alone with a snag. He wanted to tell the secret, but he would keep it as long as he needed to …or until presented with a snag.
This brings us to the present. We were on a summer vacation enjoying the luxury of lying by the poolside on our cruise ship. Jenny and I were sitting in our lounge chairs and Rob and Ben had gone swimming in the pools and soaking in the hot tub. If I could erase that moment I would. Ben came toward me, red puffy swollen eyes, clearly he had been crying or was about to and I thought, “Oh no, he got into trouble.”
He simply collapsed into my arms saying, “Dad said that Santa isn’t real,” and he began to sob.
I felt my heart sink, I gasped. I looked up helplessly locking eyes with Rob.
“I didn’t say he wasn’t real buddy!” Rob said.
Through tears at this point, “Yes, you did,” he argued, “I asked you if Santa was real. You said, ‘Do you want to know the truth?'”
“No, you said, ‘Dad, you always promised to tell me the truth, so I really want to know, is Santa real?’ I said, There was a man named Saint Nicholas. He was a real person and he was a good man. He did some really great things and they made him a saint, but he is no longer alive so we keep his spirit alive through Santa Claus.”
“Right, you said, Santa isn’t real!”
Rob closed his eyes and hung his head, he knew there was no winning. I mean, how could there be a winner in this conversation. Ben wanted to know the truth, he really wanted to know the answers, but the fact of the matter is he wanted the truth to be that there was a Santa Claus. He wanted there to still be the magic. On that warm July afternoon, his world had changed just a little bit. As I held a crying boy in my arms, I realized all of our worlds changed a little bit that day. Now it was our job to show him that the magic still can live on, but for these next couple of months before Christmas, I have a feeling things are going to be a little difficult.