Lost and Found: The Spirit of Santa Claus

Once upon a time, Santa, the man, was revered in my household. My oldest son absolutely loved him. When he was five, he told me he actually wanted to be Santa when he grew up. Our youngest son lit up like a string of LED lights each holiday season, and demanded we track Santa’s sleigh on NORAD each Christmas Eve (he’s obviously my more scientific-minded child).

Every year, to fulfill our Santa-obligations, my husband and I would scatter sparkly tinsel and lay dozens of candy canes all over our mangy little tree while the kids were asleep. Out of our secret storage would come all the shiny-wrapped gifts only Santa could bring, trumping the one or two standby presents we’d had under the tree for weeks. When the kids woke up Christmas morning, they were dazzled. It was this look of enchantment that made their adoration of a mythical fat man so wonderful for us, and so worth the make-believe.

Then, age ten happened. My oldest son heard a rumor from a few savvy kids in class that Santa wasn’t real, and he decided to confront me with the question.

“Is there such thing as Santa Claus?” he asked. I was standing in front of my bed, folding a mountain of laundry, and turned to look at him. I could not plain-face lie to my son, and I decided, in that moment, that it was time he knew the truth.

“Well, yes and no,” I said. “There isn’t an actual man, but he represents a spirit, a symbol of love and giving, and he is what your dad and I embody each year, as we put those presents under the tree.”

I thought I’d scored, thought I’d said the perfect combination of words to give my son a residual feeling of Christmas spirit without the make-believe. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“If there’s no Santa, then, there’s no Easter Bunny,” he said. He was staring at his fingers, as if to count the many fallacies on which I’d raised him.

“I don’t believe there’s a God,” he said. He was dead serious. He’d calculated the logic, and stared at me with dead-pan eyes.

It took me a moment to figure out what to say. We weren’t the most religious of families, we didn’t belong to a church, and we enjoyed learning about different faiths, but not practicing them. While we weren’t a denomination, I’d raised my sons to believe in something greater than ourselves. I never thought that Santa Claus could be the undoing of my son’s faith in a higher power.

“You know that I believe in God. I hope that you do, too. All I can tell you is that there is too much wonder, too much beauty, and too much purpose for any of this to be accidental,” I said. I struggled to speak my own truth, but reach the heart of a disappointed 10 year old boy. I failed, miserably.

My son didn’t seem as joyful after that day. The spark of belief, that golden light that shines behind a child’s eyes, had vanished. For my boy, it seemed the world after Santa Claus would never be the same.

A few months later, Christmas rolled around. My son agreed to keep the secret from his little brother, but I could see the temptation in him to tell, to break the sparkly joy in my baby boy’s eyes with cold, hard truth.

But something strange happened Christmas morning. True to form, my husband and I placed the pretty packages around the tree the night before, bedazzled the living room and stuffed the stockings full of funny nonsensical gifts, and candy. Even though our oldest didn’t believe anymore, he was included in our generosity as if he did.

That morning, when the kids ran into our bedroom to wake us up; the missing light was back. It was that sparkle of hope, and of faith that something full of light and love could visit our house, and bless us with Christmas joy.

My youngest yelled, “Mom! He came!” and my oldest smiled secretively at me, and then winked. He got it. He understood what Santa really meant, and maybe even what it means to believe in something bigger than ourselves. In that one wink of his eye, I knew he felt the joy my husband and I felt, seeing his little brother burst with love, and faith. From that morning on, he never again lost the joy he had for Christmas.

Now, at 14 and 16, neither son believes in a literal Santa Claus, but the spirit of Santa lives large in my home. Two weeks ago, I stopped by their bedroom to make sure they’d gone to sleep, and heard the merry jingle of Christmas carols playing on my youngest son’s iPod. They’re as excited during the Christmas season as they were when they were little, but now, the secret of Santa is one we all share. I know that when it’s their turn to bring magic to their children’s holiday, they will do just fine.

And the whole belief in God issue? It’s there. I’m grateful my son was able to navigate through a story of holiday spirit, to something of a greater spirit.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Photo courtesy of GiantBomb