Snow Sunday: The Truth About Santa Claus
I’ve never really been a fan of Santa Claus, or even Christmas. I was pretty young when I caught my parents in what I deemed to be not just a lie, but a whopper of epic proportions. A man in a red suit living at the North Pole with flying reindeer and a sack of presents he delivered to Christian kids all over the world? Please, I thought. How ridiculous. And I never understood why they had perpetuated this myth and its hyper-consumerism. Until this year, that is.
I had my first holiday meltdown this season. We had managed to avoid Christmas and most of its trappings for the first couple of years after our kids were born, escaping to Mexico in December to visit my husbands’ parents at their beachside winter casita. Simple meals, small token gifts, sun, and surf. Aaah, I thought. This is how we’ll do it.
Alas. The kids got a little older, and the holiday season became inevitable, confined not just to a week or two but instead to the entire month of December. And this year, Grandpa has cancer, so they are stateside while he goes through chemotherapy, and we are staying home in Colorado. Still, I was determined not to get tangled up in the madness of shopping and stress. I had a plan: Instead of buying a bunch of plastic toys made by child slaves in a foreign country, we would remodel the tiny room under the stairs into a special hangout room for the kids. Imagine their surprise, I thought gleefully. It will be perfect. Nothing overboard, just some chalkboard paint, a rug, tiny furniture, and pillows.
The meltdown started with multiple trips to Home Depot, where I spent too much money and too much time. Then there was the actual painting and fixing, which I had to do during the three or so hours a week where I am not with my kids or at work. But I would somehow do it, in between making cookies, cleaning the house for holiday visitors, and wrapping presents for the extended family and friends. Disheveled and bedraggled, I drove into town with the kids, and en route my 4-year-old informed me of his list for Santa. The list included a very expensive toy that I hadn’t bought and wouldn’t be able to buy. Keep it together, I murmured to myself. It’s just a toy. He will love the room. I was trying to negotiate an illegal U-turn in my husband’s behemoth truck (he took his Dad to the chemo appointment in my nice, safe car) and lo and behold: “Hello, officer.” He motioned for me to roll down my window and gave me a loud scolding in front of all of the other parents at the school. Did I know this was a one-way street? No, I did not. (Only in Telluride does a two-way street become a one-way street around the school during drop-off and pick-up hours, with no signs to let people know.) Red-faced, I carried my son and held my daughter’s hand as I brought her into kindergarten. “Are you coming to the holiday concert?” another mom asked me. Holiday concert? That must have been on the same memo as the one-way street, and no, I didn’t get the memo. I was starting to boil over at this point. Cancer. Credit card debt. The wrong present, the wrong way on the street. Missing the concert. Everything l was trying so hard to do was just turning into a mess. As I dropped off my son at preschool, he asked again about his Santa list. I got back into the truck and put my head on the steering wheel and just Let it Go, Frozen-style.
I felt like my mother, who always seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown during the holidays. What I never understood about Santa Claus was why she would spend so much money, and expend so much energy and time and thought in secret, only to give all the credit to a fictional character in red pajamas. People will tell you it’s for the kids, this Santa Claus story. It’s to ignite their belief in magic and mystery. But I think that’s wrong. I think Santa Claus is for parents. For a brief stretch of time, between the birth of your children and their tragic discovery of the truth, parents will have to play Santa Claus: They will have to learn how to give unconditionally, without receiving gratitude or credit or reward. And what I’ve learned from my marginal performance as Santa is that this is one of the great exercises in life—everyone should understand what it’s like to do something special for someone else secretly, without expecting any recognition for it.
I hope that someday my kids will read this post, which will probably still exist somewhere in the wide world of the web, and forgive my holiday meltdowns and lackluster portrayal of Santa Claus. I also hope that they get to experience both kinds of holidays, the kinds where you go to Mexico and forget all of the hype, and the kinds where you are in service anonymously as a secret Santa. Because the real gifts you get from Santa Claus aren’t the ones you get as children. The real gifts are the grownup lessons you learn about love and sacrifice and joy.
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