PARENT WARNING: This blog post is for parents only. Do not read this where your kids can see it. Don’t read it out loud to them, either (not that you would, but I’m trying to be thorough). In fact, bookmark this post and read it after the kids go to bed.
Christmas magic died for my daughter yesterday afternoon. It was an accident. Her little brother, looking for a stray sock, stumbled upon the hiding place where I’d stashed his Christmas gift. Being the innocent six year-old that he is, Jon didn’t understand why there was an Xbox tucked away in my bedroom. I told him it was mine and he needed to leave it alone. He said, “Cool! Maybe we’ll both get an Xbox for Christmas!” and then proceeded to go on as if nothing were out of the normal.
Ella, however, looked dead at me and I knew.
This story really begins about two years ago when Ella got off the bus with a pained look on her face. She sidled up to me, slipped her tiny hand into mine, and said she wanted to ask me something.
“Sure,” I said.
“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked.
“My friend on the bus said there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. She says it’s just your mom and dad putting presents on the tree and moving the Elf around the house.”
My heart stopped. Ella looked up at me, her green eyes glinting.
“Is that true, daddy?”
I’ll never forget those eyes, especially since they reappeared yesterday afternoon. The hurt. The sadness. The betrayal. It was too much to deal with, so I hustled the kids off to the kitchen and fixed them a treat — brownie sundaes — hoping to just let the uncomfortable moment pass. Jon was fine with it. Ella was not.
So I talked it over with Rachel. We knew we were going to have to tell Ella the truth, but Rachel was adamant that we not blow things up for Jon. It was going to be awkward.
I walked into the kitchen and sat down next to Ella. Jon was across from us, his back to the living room. Ella grabbed my hand. I took a deep breath. She looked at me. I looked at her. Her eyes were so sad.
And all I could do was laugh.
I know. I suck as a father. I’m used to it by now.
I laughed because Ella never let go of that question the little girl put into her mind two years ago: Is Santa real? For the last couple of Christmases, doubt has been an ever-present part of our festivities. Ella wasn’t belligerent about it or anything, but she would just have these moments when her brain would circle back around to the issue. And every time she would ask me or Rachel about the reality of Santa’s existence, we would patiently (and sometimes impatiently) explain that yes, Santa was real.
Last year, we actually softened it and said that as long as she believed Santa was real, that was all that mattered. And that seemed good enough for Ella. If nothing else, she trusted her mom and dad.
And that’s why I laughed: the absurdity of the entire situation simply overwhelmed me, and my response to absurdity is laughter. My daughter, who might just be the single greatest detective alive, finally had the confirmation she needed. Her long-held suspicion was true: mom and dad were behind the jolly fat man.
To Ella’s credit, she ate her sundae and didn’t say a word. When she was finished, she got up and went to her room. I had to get ready for my company’s Christmas party, so Jon followed me to hang out and Rachel went to check on Ella.
She was laying on her bed, crying. Not because Santa wasn’t real, but because her childhood was over. Rachel sat down next to her and stroked her hair, and Ella wept over the death of a part of her childhood. The magic of Santa, of the Elf on the Shelf, of the lights and the tree and everything else was now exposed to the cold reality. Ella lifted her head, put it in Rachel’s lap, and sobbed.
“I just don’t want to grow up,” she said through tears.
My wife is a brilliant and godly woman. And God gave her the wisdom in that moment to explain to Ella about what Santa really means. How he’s a symbol for hope and good. How he inspires people to be generous and kind. How he creates a magic that we, as her parents, didn’t want to rob her of because there is so precious little magic in the world. Especially as adults. Rachel shared how Christ is really the focus of Christmas, but in a world that has gone cold to the message of Jesus, Santa is the best that some people can do.
“We’ve seen people who grew up without the magic of Christmas,” Rachel told her. “And we didn’t want that for you. We wanted you to have the memory as something precious to hold on to.”
Ella wiped her face and looked at Rachel, and folks, there is a God in heaven and he moves in our lives, because at that moment Rachel said Ella’s face changed. The tears went away and a wide and astonished wonder took its place.
Ella looked at Rachel and said, “If there’s no Santa, that means you and daddy have been the ones giving all of my expensive gifts for Christmas.”
What had been a moment of devastation was suddenly a moment of comprehension. It was a sudden shift in Ella’s worldview: in a moment, she was flooded with gratitude for everything Santa had given her, because she finally understood where it all came from.
“It was you,” she said.
Rachel explained to Ella how we manage to make Christmas fun, how we work hard to afford the gifts that her and Jon ask for. Ella thanked Rachel and gave her a big hug. It was a moment I missed, but one that moved me when Rachel shared it.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t conflicted. There’s a huge part of me that is absolutely devastated that Ella knows the truth. There’s an equally huge part of me that is glad to be done with the charade, if only because it means Ella won’t go through this season grilling me like Jack McCoy.
(Ella, being a smart little girl, quickly pieced together the truth about the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, so we had to own up to our roles there. We actually got a good laugh about the Tooth Fairy because Rachel and I both despise that ritual).
But there’s something missing now that she knows the truth. Ella woke up this morning still a little sad. After all, she has to keep the secret for another couple of years because Jon still believes. We’ve also made it clear that she’s not to spoil things for others the way that one little girl did for her. Ella, because she is kind and generous and full of light, has agreed to hold the line and let other kids keep the magic a bit longer.
I mentioned yesterday that it was strange moving deeper into adulthood. So many things for which you’re not prepared, things which no one can really warn you about because they’re too busy being surprised themselves. Some days it seems like the plainest truth is we’re all just making it up as we go along, hoping we get it right, hoping no one suffers much when we don’t.
There are things we do to try and make the world a little bit better place, and some times those very nice things bring with them a price tag of sadness when they go away. The question, then, is whether or not the magic is worth the cost. It’s still early for me, but I’m thinking I know what my answer is.