Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Did Mama Grinch Kill Santa Claus? You Decide.

And here we go again.  It all begins innocently enough.

Last year our youngest daughter learned two simple facts.  One.  Santa was modeled after St.Nicholas.  Two.  St. Nicholas lived a long time ago.

She started thinking.  Processing.  Her eyes grew wide as her brain made a logical leap.  Then the question came:

“Santa is died?”

“Uh, well, not exactly, but sort of, I mean…” (to see an account of my stammering, look here.)

And.

The saga continues in 2013.

****

It’s our oldest this year, our lovely almost-six year old daughter.  Last week we attended a St. Nicholas party, during which my friend read the story of St. Nicholas to the assembled kids.  And then… what was that?… a knock on the door!  Outside there was a basket of adorable little stockings, filled with clementines and candy.  The kids bounced and screamed.

St. Nicholas! St. Nicholas!  It’s a miracle!

A Miracle!

But our oldest saw only candy canes.  She negotiated her sugar allowance (2 pieces) and ran upstairs.  A half hour later she cornered me in the kitchen.  “Mama?”  “Yes?”  “This is beginning to get creepy.”  “Creepy?”  “Yes.  They’re all upstairs saying that St. Nicholas brought us the stockings, but St. Nicholas is dead, Mama.  That’s creepy to say that he brought them.”

Oh.

“Mama, I want you to tell me who really gave us the stockings.  Was it the grown-ups?”

“Yes,” I confessed.  She smiled widely.  “But you can’t tell any of the other kids, okay?”  “Okay, Mama.”

She bounced back upstairs.  My heart sunk a little.  She isn’t yet six.

****

When I was their age, I did believe in Santa, so much so that I swear I once heard reindeer hooves on my roof.  I brought my list to the mall, put out carrots and cookies on Christmas Eve, and wondered how he could do it, all in one night like that.  It was about more than just the presents, it was the story, and I was caught up in all of it.

The magic faded gradually as I grew.  I don’t remember a moment when the scales fell from my eyes, nor a strong sense of betrayal when I realized I had been duped.  Rather, my desire for the presents themselves slowly supplanted my need for reindeer and the North Pole.  Santa?  Yeah, right.  What I wanted were new jeans and a phone for my room.  My family continued to leave out carrots and cookies, but it was just for little brothers, and then just for tradition.  Cute.  It was a cute story for little kids, but really, I’m too old for all that.

And at some point I began to question all the cute stories.  Santa with reindeer, Baby Jesus in the manger.  December seemed to be a month for myths, and how different were a ‘he sees you when you’re sleeping’ Santa and a God looking down from above?  C’mon.  Let’s talk about my list, cause the pile of presents is magic enough for me.

And it was enough, until it wasn’t.

Once upon a time I became too old for stories, and later I became too old to live without them.  Somewhere around late high school, something changed.  The stuff wasn’t enough anymore.  But what do you do when you’re eighteen, and you can’t go back to Santa?  What do you do when you suspect that Jesus is just the grown-up’s version of flying reindeer?

Or.

It is possible that there could be true magical stories?

****

At our house there are four kids under the age of six and four parents (under the age of, um…) who are trying to give the kids a magical month of December.  We four adults have fallen into Christian communities in one way or another, with varying amounts of struggle along the way, and we have found our homes in a common story.

Now we are trying to give this away.

But it’s hard, because the animals around the manger don’t fly, and Jesus didn’t come to earth to give us I-Pads.    The Heifer International catalog has a lot more to do with Christmas than the Toys R’ Us advertisement, but really… what would you have wanted to look at when you were almost-six?  It’s hard to not feel like Religious Nut Mama Grinch when the American Girl catalog goes straight into the trash.

Still.

We have not given up on magic around here.  There are Christmas lights covering every surface of the porch, and a ‘yes, you can play with it’ manger scene.  Baby Jesus is getting a birthday cake (cause really, kids+sugar is a winning combination for any holiday), and kids in Haiti are getting new soccer balls (cause that’s what Jesus put on his list).  There are boots for St. Nicolas Day, secret gifts for St. Lucia Day, and (if I actually get around to it this year) cookies for the neighbors delivered with smiles and Santa hats.  And yes, there are presents on December 25th, and the grown-ups who gave them to you love you very much.

Sometimes I’m still not sure if we’re cheating them the magic of Santa and reindeer on the roof, but when it comes down to it, we’re just trying to give them magic that will last, magic that you can’t grow out of.

We’ll let you know how it went in a couple of decades.

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“Santa is Died,”

and other things that you don’t want your three-year-old to announce during preschool story time.

****

The question took me by surprise.

Up to this point, our family had employed a very successful ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ policy about the man with the reindeer.  It went like this–Mama and Daddy get you presents because we love you.  Your grandparents get you more (and better) presents because they love you and have disposable income.  Aren’t those silly reindeer cute?  And that man with the big white beard, isn’t he funny?

“Mama, is Santa real?”

The question came from the three-year-old, from the backseat of the car, on the drive to Thanksgiving.  The timing surprised me, but don’t worry– I was prepared.

“Well, honey, St. Nicholas was real.  He lived a long time ago and gave presents to children.  He loved children so much, and now we remember him when we see Santa.”

“Is St. Nicholas still alive?”

“Well… (I sensed that we were entering deeper waters)… no, not really.  He lived a long time ago.”

A long pause while both of my daughters considered this information.  Then the youngest spoke.

“Mama, Santa is died?!?!?”

****

So.  At this point I mumbled something about no-honey-Santa-is-still-real-in-stories-and-won’t-you-be-excited-to-see-the-doggies-at-Thanksgiving, and hoped that they would forget.  It worked.

Until the drive home.  My husband was driving the other car, and I was waiting for them to fall asleep.  Instead, our youngest started sobbing dramatically, clearly intending to communicate her distress.  “What’s wrong, honey?”   She breathed loudly.  “I sad,” she declared, “because,” sob, sob, sniffle, “Santa is died.”

Long pause.  Here we go again.

“You mean, Santa is dead,” her older sister corrected.

I interrupted.  “No, no… sweetie… umm… Santa isn’t dead.  St. Nicolas is dead because he lived a long time ago, but now he lives in God’s house, and we remember him and… uh… Santa… well… you see Santas all over the place this time of year.  And we tell Santa stories too, and…”

She was not appeased (yes, if you are wondering, this is the “Mama, You No Eat Animals!” daughter).  Sob, sob, sob… her volume was increasing now… “I sad because Santa is died!”

“Santa is dead.” The grammar police again.

I sighed, reached back, and held her hand.

****

If you would like to judge me for this little episode, you won’t be alone.  For days I berated myself about spoiling the magic of childhood; for making something that could have been so simple, so complicated; and for not having the right words when the moment came.

But then it got worse.  Remorse turned to panic as I remembered.  Preschool.  We had four weeks of preschool until Christmas.  I could see it all unfold before my eyes.  A crowd of three-year-olds listens intently as an unsuspecting teacher turns a page in a storybook.  “Look children, who is this man in the red suit?”  A chorus of sweet voices, “Santa!  That’s Santa!”

And then my daughter would make her announcement.

****

Briefly, I considered keeping her home for the month of December, but then I decided to start by talking with her teacher.

It was the end of the day, and parents were bundling their children.  I found the teacher.  “Um, Can I talk with you about something?”  She could tell that I had something serious to say.  She nodded, we stepped into the hallway, and I blurted out my story.    When I was finally finished, I looked down at the ground and waited.  Would we be kicked out of preschool?  Maybe I should have just kept her at home, and kept my mouth shut.  Now it was too late.  I looked up.

She didn’t looked shocked.  Quite the contrary… her expression was more like, “so, this was your serious news?”  She started to walk back to the other children, leaving me with a simple, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  We did something similar in my family, and my niece used to say the same thing.  Don’t worry about it at all.”  Then she was gone, back to the pressing needs of unmittened hands.

And that was it.

****

That was it… so far… but we still have four weeks to go.  Four weeks to go, and that’s just this year.

But I’ve decided to stop nursing my remorse and panic.  Here’s why.  In our brief encounter, here’s what I learned from my daughter’s preschool teacher:  It’s okay.  Kids say things.  Parents say things.  Families do things differently.  Life goes on.

And if a declaration like “Santa is died” isn’t as shocking as I imagined, maybe we can just keep figuring this all out.