Unfortunately, the chapter of childhood where reindeer fly and elves become North Pole pen pals and Santa defies time and space to visit all the children of the world in a single, jolly night has closed for Benjamin.
Last night, we took the children to see Santa at the Town Square's annual Christmas tree lighting. On our way, I mentioned that this Santa might look different than the Santa we saw in Evergreen. Abby wanted to know why. I fumbled for words when Benjamin jumped in with an explanation about how there are fake Santas who help the real Santa, one in each state, but the real Santa is the one who delivers the toys on Christmas Eve. He said it with the conviction of one who knows, and Abby was convinced.
We continued driving, listening to Christmas music, but a few minutes later, Benjamin said, "Mommy, tell me the truth. Do you and Daddy put the presents in our stockings?"
I paused, thinking. Josh and I had talked about how we would answer questions about Santa if the kids really wanted to know. We agreed that we would answer them honestly rather than continue with vague and cryptic evasions, but I was in a predicament with Abby in the car. I couldn't ask my clarifying question, "Do you want the magical answer or the real answer?" without raising her suspicions.
Instead, I hedged with, "Can we talk about this later when we're in private, Bug?"
"Why?" he asked, curious. Always with the "why's"!
In hindsight, I'm sure he was thinking, why talk about it later if you're going to tell me Santa fills our stockings.
In hindsight, when he said, "Tell me the truth," I don't think he was really interested in the truth.
In hindsight, I should have just asked, "What do you think?"
Hindsight, hindsight. It's always 20/20.
Fortunately, he dropped the question, and we arrived at Town Square to find the main street filled with vendors, activities, and holiday cheer. Josh, who arrived before us from work, was already in line to see Santa. Once we joined him, the kids wanted to walk over and see this Texas Santa, so the three of us wandered down and peeked at him from behind the photographer. Santa saw Ben and Abby looking and waved to them, smiling. Their faces lit up. I exhaled. All was well.
When their turn came, the kids climbed onto Santa's lap together, smiled for the camera, and then were ushered off as quickly as they had settled.
Once we had reconvened, Benjamin said with some indignation, "He didn't ask what we wanted for Christmas."
I echoed his surprise. "Really? That's strange. Maybe this year we can write our requests and mail them instead."
Abby then launched into an explanation of how she had already written her Christmas list for Santa in her very best handwriting at school that morning, so she wouldn't need to write again. She skipped down the street at my side toward the restaurant for dinner.
Benjamin, however, didn't move. There in the middle of main street, the realization dawned on him. He folded into himself and began to cry.
Josh picked him up in his strong Daddy arms and held him with great tenderness. When Abby and I walked back over to see what was wrong, Josh walked with him the other way. I took the hint and ushered Abby back down the street.
When they joined us a few minutes later, Benjamin's eyes were teary, but he was smiling. Abby offered him part of her candy cane, her little-sister attempt to comfort.
While they opened their candy, Josh quietly told me, "He knows. Someone at school told him."
My heart sank.
"But he's okay," Josh continued. In his wisdom, Josh had begun sharing with Ben our escapades to make their Santa requests come true."He's kind of enjoying being in-the-know."
Once settled at the restaurant, Josh and Abby left the table to use the restroom. Benjamin came around to my chair and said, "Mommy, I know about Santa. Daddy was telling me stories about finding Santa gifts for us. Can you tell me, too?"
So with as much drama and suspense as I could create, I began telling him the story of the Santa suit we put together for him when he was five. We laughed together, and there was new joy in sharing the back story of Christmas with the newly initiated. He even seemed to glow a bit in his new status.
After dinner, Abby rode home with Josh, and Benjamin rode home with me. We talked the whole way, piecing together the mystery for him. We talked about some of the gifts that were more challenging to come by. We talked about the fun and beauty of this tradition, where folks from around the whole world work together to create this magic for children. We talked about Saint Nicholas, the real story on which Santa Claus is based. When I mentioned him, Benjamin did the story-telling, having read a book called Santa Claus as a Kid. His summary started with, "Well, there was this boy who wanted to be like Jesus..." And so we talked about how Jesus, the main Story of Christmas, is absolutely true.
"Yes, Christmas is Jesus's birthday, and Santa Claus is one of our holiday traditions," he confirmed.
And of course we talked about the importance of not telling other children who still believe. "It wasn't right of your friend to tell you before you wanted to know." He nodded, understanding completely.
"I'll keep writing notes to Sparkle so Abby doesn't find out!" he suggested.
The conversation was sweet, sweet. There was no sense of betrayal or anger. Just disappointment. "I still wanted to believe," he said, looking out the window.
When we got home, he began getting ready for bed. He pulled on his pajamas and said, "There's just one thing I don't know yet. Who wrote the notes from Santa?"
Each year, next to the empty plate of cookies on the hearth, Santa leaves a hand-written thank you with a few personal notes and encouragements for the kids.
"Papa writes them," I said.
Benjamin's eyes twinkled. "Papa?" I could see him turning this information over in his head. "And does he eat the cookies?"
"We all eat the cookies," I admitted, smiling.
Josh and I tucked the kids into bed and retired to the couch to debrief the evening.
Several minutes later, we heard Benjamin crying in the bathroom. Josh went to check on him and learned he didn't want to cry in his bed in front of Abby, so Josh invited him out to talk with us, and Benjamin grieved a little more.
"This morning when I went to school, I believed. But at recess I didn't anymore." He told us the full story of how he was told. When he had shared everything, he went back to bed and fell asleep.
Though he is enjoying his new role as an insider to the tradition, there is loss.
In truth, I was surprised by the ache in my own heart last night. It feels, somehow, that we've lost a dimension of Christmas. Not in a sacrilegious way: of course, the truest, deepest meaning of Christmas will never change. But in the realization that Benjamin had to grow up a little last night, that we had to usher him from the fellowship of childhood to the fellowship of Saint Nicholas. His focus was shifted from his own delight to that of Abby and the other children who still believe.
It's healthy, and it's good, and I know this process will repeat itself over and over as he matures, because the biggest milestones of growing up require us to turn our focus away from ourselves and towards someone else: working a job, getting married, having children...
But I would have been okay prolonging this particular joy a bit longer.
There is beauty in the way a child asks in faith and receives with open-handed delight. Perhaps this ability to receive everything as grace, as gift without strings, is why Jesus asks us to come to him like little children. There is value in beholding the world with eyes of wonder and mystery and delight and faith that someone benevolent and kind loves to give us good gifts.
Anyway, before I climbed in bed last night, I wrote Sparkle's response to the note Benjamin had written yesterday morning, wishing he didn't know I was the author. I tried to incorporate a little humor for his sake, an insider's wink to keep the process fun for the child who knows while we continue to create the mystery for Abby.
And this morning, Benjamin came out to find Sparkle and read her new note to Abby as he has every morning this week. Then he sat down at the table to write another letter, doing his grown-up part to maintain the wonder for his little sister.
I was so, so proud.
For the rest of his life, now, he participates in the Santa tradition from the perspective of Saint Nicholas. He joins us and the world in a conspiracy of generosity, inspired by a babe in a manger: God incarnate, who first walked this earth as a child, marveling at the wonders with the same open-handed delight of Benjamin and Abigail and all children, before growing into a man whose joy it became to give everything.