Santa Clause. That beloved figure of old commercialized and consumerized and canonized by cheap costumes and every man with a fake white beard willing to shout ‘Ho Ho Ho’ at the holidays. If you don’t believe, you are shamed. If you do believe past a certain age of accountability, you are mocked. The debate of belief surrounding this iconic character becomes the fodder of new parents — some unwilling to attribute the blood, sweat and tears of gift-giving to an old man in a red suit and others eager to relive the imaginative magic of their childhood. Movie after movie asks & answers the age-old question — is Santa Clause real? Is he actually a Miracle on 34th Street? Does he really fly a sled pulled by nine reindeer with Nose-So-Bright as the lead?
My husband and I, we were ‘those’ parents. We both grew up with Santa Clause. On the flip, we also grew up knowing the true meaning of Christmas and celebrated it as such— in Church singing centuries old hymns, reading the Christmas story and carefully placing the pieces of the Nativity. The essence of Christmas was never lost on us— that Jesus, born of a virgin, came to save His people from their sins and that He could be born in us. The purest reality that He is Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God and Everlasting Father echoed in our experience. Despite this lived experience, we were determined to keep Santa out of our children’s lives. They would know him only as the ancient bishop named Saint Nicholas who was a generous and kind man to the poor. He was a historical figure in storybooks. Our children would not believe.
We started out steadfast, but old habits and family traditions die hard. We would set the gifts out after midnight and just not tell the kids who they were from. We sheepishly sat our kids on Santa’s lap at the mall for a photo shoot. In my most direct communication style, I would look my toddlers square in the eye and tell them it was all pretend. Santa wasn’t real. At any glimmer of belief, we were consistent with our words. We rehearsed the narrative and placed Santa Clause categorically on the ‘not-real’ island of misfit toys.
Thankfully, our firstborn — a ‘Christmas baby’ born eleven days before December 25th — had a tenacious and never-wavering imagination. Because 21 years ago, when she was barely nine years old, our three daughters first saw Santa. He became real. And they believed.
The last nine weeks of the year 2000, the dreaded Y2K, were especially difficult for our family. My husband last visited his mother in hospice care near his late-October birthday. She was nearing the end of her seven year battle with breast cancer. Her one request was that she wouldn’t linger. But she did.
Every time the phone rang, we jumped. Dread would fill our faces, tears would well up— and then the caller would be a dental appointment reminder or a random call from an acquaintance. My husband became tasked with answering all the calls so he would know first. It seemed like eight weeks of high alert phone answering - a 911 telephone operator job no one really wants. There were few other updates. His mother was fading. She was dying. And a slow grief is quite painful to update. Because it’s never good news. It’s just pain transmitted over old school telephone wires.
We got the call. On December 22, 2000-- cheerful, encouraging Mr. Barnabas learned his mother was gone from this earth. Nothing prepares you to lose a parent. I saw a unique grief sweep over him that still holds a tenderness at the holidays. She had gotten the most beautiful call home to be with Jesus. But we were left to celebrate the holidays without her.
There are stories about 10 men and 1 woman who have walked across the caverns of Niagara Falls on a tight rope. They call them daredevils. Equally, it takes an emotional daredevil to walk the Christmas season celebrating the life and coming of the Christ-child while grieving the newly departed — your mom.
The next day, we went to my family’s Christmas gathering. It hit different that year. Two days later, on Christmas Eve, my preacher-husband stood at the pulpit and delivered a beautiful message. He seemed to never detach from the tasks in front of him. He plodded on, reminding the congregation of a newborn Savior. In season and out of season, faithfully carrying on the message given to him. Doing what his mother taught him— channeling the blessed Master every day and every hour. Walking the tightrope.
We had three beautiful little girls, ages barely nine, six-and-a half and four-and-a-half years old who had just lost their Grandma. Three days before Santa Clause comes to town. That is, if they believed.
We had to travel ten hours ON Christmas Day to her December 26th funeral. Christmas had to come early for our little ones. Son of the deceased was also a young Dad so he put one foot in front of other-- setting aside his grief long enough to convey good news of great joy to his little girls.
The year 2000 is the first year I remember celebrating Christmas with Santa Clause in our home. We had helpers. The Lord sent us elves in the form of Jim, Phil and Bob — dear, godly men in our church who loved us well and wanted to bring joy to our circumstances in a unique way that year.
In early December, Jim, sporting a red sweatshirt and who looked every bit like the real Santa had sat the kids on his lap and asked them what they wanted for Christmas. Jim had been cleaning up the church fellowship hall from a holiday function and the spontaneity he brought gave way to their childlike wonder. I think it helped he was in street clothes and was just a normal guy serving the church. I couldn’t have convinced our girls — if I had tried — that there wasn’t a real Santa after that.
Phil and Bob did their part on Christmas Eve. My husband was still tight rope walking. Looking out for their grieving brother, they stole over to the house with him and set out all the gifts because Santa had to come before midnight that year. They made reindeer tracks in the snow and left little hints of the generous gift-giver, St. Nick. Their enthusiasm to give our daughters the perfect Christmas amidst the grief still warms me. They let our little ones gain the wonder of Christmas despite the harsh realities of loss. What great men who still believed in the best of Santa— lavish gift giving and the power of joy and laughter no matter the season.
And so, our parenting changed course that Christmas Eve, before midnight. Our daughters arrived home to a house full of presents. Their expressions are forged in my memory. That is the year they really saw Santa. They heard him, they saw him in the sky, they traced the reindeer tracks with their fingers— just ask them. Maybe you’ll see, too.
My mother-in-law was a gift to me. She gave me the good man who is my husband. We laid her to rest on the day after Christmas, Y2K. The long and lonely drive on Christmas Day was brutal. Long before she ever thought she would have a Christmas funeral, she had bought Christmas gifts for each of her family. She wrote us each a letter. She didn’t know when Jesus would call her home. She had written her family a letter to be read at her funeral — and the line that sticks with me is this “I’ve had a Wonderful Life.”
Much like George Bailey, her later years were filled with a suffering we can only imagine. But when she looked back, when she considered the whole of her sixty years, she looked back in wonder. Not because she believed in Santa — or imagined that magical character with her seven children but because she believed in Jesus, the centerpiece of Christmas.
At her funeral, Amazing Grace echoed the lonely funeral home on a baby grand piano. It is still the most beautiful version of Amazing Grace I’ve ever heard played or sung. To our family, it didn’t feel much like Christmas that year to say good-bye to a mom, a grandma — a wife of 37 years. But maybe for her, it was the best Christmas pageant Ever.
To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, the Great Emanuel, ‘God with Us’. To get an eternal head start on Christmas — all before midnight — must be the wonder of all wonders.
Our fourth daughter never met her Grandma. She also never lived in a world where her parents told her Santa wasn’t real. She has always lived in the land of tightrope walkers. Celebrating everything joyous about Christmas including her late Grandma’s Christmas cookies, stellar enthusiasm at opening gifts, sneaking and snooping early Christmas morning and her Dad’s deep voice waking up the house with ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’. Then three days before Christmas, we pause to remember Mom and to grieve afresh. The land of life. Real joy and real grief walking hand in hand.
At the end of the day, a mother’s love is evergreen. Each Christmas builds upon the other. Each memory acts as a scaffold to be able to reach the others. Santa or no Santa matters little. If you celebrate on the actual day, on some random date good for all— or some time before midnight— matters none.
What matters is this - that you celebrate the Christ Child, the only Hope of the world. What matters is that you give lavishly to a lonely, grieving world. What matters is that you see the wonder of Christmas through a child’s eyes.
Christmas 2000 is kindof a blur. I have no idea what gifts were exchanged. I have no idea what my favorite Christmas song new to the airwaves was or what baking I delivered that year. I do remember reindeer tracks. And friendships. I remember my four year old walking and standing in front of the casket. I remember the funeral home being relatively bare and devoid of flowers because shops weren’t open and it’s a very inconvenient time for others to think about death.
I remember that my daughters first believed in Santa because he arrived uncharacteristically, before midnight, on Christmas Eve.
And I remember my mother-in-law, a dear cheerful woman who left us uncharacteristically young, reminding us what she last believed —
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound,
It’s been a wonderful life.
Jesus Christ. That beloved Babe of old— real God and real man, offers all the Peace of Christmas despite the tight ropes you walk. I hope you believe Him this Christmas.
All before midnight.