Friday, December 6, 2013

Joining the Fellowship of Saint Nicholas

We knew it was coming. We knew it wouldn't be long before Benjamin discovered the truth about Santa. But watching his devotion to writing Santa almost daily through our Elf on the Shelf, Sparkle--with the purity and innocence of a boy enchanted--we thought we might just enjoy one more season with the magic intact.

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 hesitated. 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. 

He smiled. 

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.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Elf on the Shelf, Santa Claus, and the Spirit of Christmas

Sparkle, our Elf on the Shelf, arrived overnight. Benjamin noticed her sitting above the microwave this morning when he turned from his oatmeal to look at me in the kitchen.

"There's our Elf on the Shelf!" he said, and after I read him her note, "Welcome home! Love, Sparkle," he promptly scooted off to tell Abby. She came to the kitchen and saw for herself, smiling her coy half-smile, the one she can't contain when she's truly delighted.

"It's really magical," Benjamin observed. "How did Santa get in here to drop her off when all the doors and windows were locked?" A lively conversation about all the possibilities ensued.

Josh and I had thought this might be the year Santa would be found out. We've talked about how to deliver "the truth." They've begun asking questions, even wondering at the Thanksgiving table, "Is Santa really real?" Grandma, in her infinite wisdom, answered with a question: "What do you think?" Which led them into explanations of the real Santa versus Santa helpers before the conversation changed subject.

I'm not naive enough to think the kids won't hear something at school or question more earnestly, but as of this morning, it appears Benjamin is happy to suspend disbelief a little longer, reveling in the wonder of miracle still.

He asked me when they would get to see Santa this year.

I answered him honestly, "I'm not sure."

In Evergreen, we saw the same Santa and Mrs. Claus every year at the Lake House. This particular Santa and Mrs. Claus embody the Spirit of Christmas so purely, I nearly believe in them myself: they are warm and kind, gently soothing babies who are uncertain, patiently drawing out the more reserved children. They encourage children to be kind to their parents, to look for ways to give during the season in addition to receiving. They seem to remember many of the little ones they see each year, and a certain glimmer of recognition in their eyes leaves each visitor to their velvety red laps feeling as though they are known.

We don't know Houston well enough yet to have figured out where to see Santa. I'd prefer to avoid malls with their long lines and barely-plausible imitation Santas. The kids do understand that not every person in a Santa suit is the "real" Santa, so perhaps this solution will suffice. But to be honest, I guess I had assumed we wouldn't see Santa this year, not wanting to cheapen the experience with a visit that is "less than" what we had in Evergreen.

Benjamin, however, decided to take this issue into his own capable hands. He sat down at our coffee table and penned a note to Santa:

"Dear Santa,
thank you for being so kind to us each year. we're still very new so we don't know w[h]ere to go so we can see you in person. Please write back to me if you know w[h]ere, or if we should make Christmas Lists.
Sincerely Benjamin."

Then he drew a quick picture of Santa on the front and said, "Mommy, read this!"

When I read, "We are still very new so we don't know where to go," I confess I had to fight a welling-up of emotion. There is an honesty, a deep vulnerability in his phrase that strikes the chord of unfamiliarity and foreignness I feel deep down here. Indeed, though we've settled into school and activities and much of life in Texas, there is no denying that we still feel fragile and vulnerable away from all the people and places we depended upon for so many years. His note reaches out of this fragility to ask one whose kindness has led him to trust, "Please help. We don't know our way yet."

He taped the note next to Sparkle so she could deliver it to Santa this evening when she returns to him.

As an afterthought, he wrote "Welcome to Texas" on a post-it and stuck it on the piece of tape holding up his note. Eight-year-old hospitality.

It should be noted that Josh and I were drug into this whole Elf on the Shelf gig reluctantly. Kicking and screaming, really. We had said we'd never buy one, both because we didn't like the premise of Santa having a "spy" to report to him the naughty and nice behaviors of our household, but largely because, frankly, Christmas gives us plenty to do already.

We maintained that conviction firmly. Until Abigail set her heart on having one last Christmas. She heard about the escapades of the elves from friends at school. So when she climbed into Mrs. Claus's lap last year, she asked for an Elf on the Shelf.

We were doomed.

Because we love our little girl to pieces, because we desire to keep the magic alive as long as we can, Abby came downstairs to her stocking Christmas morning to find a little elf peeking out from behind her stocking holder, from Santa. She named her elf Sparkle, and here we are, a year later, making this story come true, too.

After this morning, though, I see that the additional effort (which, in reality, is pretty minimal) is so very, very worthwhile. This glimpse of Benjamin's gratitude, of his earnestness and sincerity, filled my heart to overflowing this morning. Indeed, when I dropped the kids off at school, all our spirits hummed with the Spirit of Christmas.

Buying this elf, and now plotting her adventures for the next few weeks, is a small sacrifice of time and energy on our parts. But as we undertake this new element of Christmas out of love for our kids, as we witness their wonder in response, what felt like sacrifice becomes joy.

I've been reading through Herself, a collection of Madeleine L'Engle's thoughts on writing. L'Engle has authored many books for a variety of audiences, but her most famous is probably A Wrinkle in Time, a now-classic children's fantasy that won the prestigious Newberry Award. In section IV of Herself, "Faith Foundations: Writing from Truth,' she writes:

"If we want a God we can prove, or an Incarnation we can prove, aren't we making an idol, rather than falling on our knees in awe of the wonderful mystery? It's a lot easier, a lot safer (in finite terms) to worship an idol than to expose ourselves to the fire of the eternal God--not the flames of hell, but the flames of love. Perhaps that's why some of the best theology is found in story--Jesus' stories, the stories of Daniel or Gideon or Esther or Jael; the novels of Dostoyevsky, the plays of Shakespeare, the stories of O. Henry; and--yes--stories written for children."

Then in section V, "An Accepted Wonder: The Wisdom of Children," she writes:

"Children are far better believers than adults; they are aware of what most adults have forgotten. They know that the daily time-bound world of limited facts is a secondary world. And stories, paintings, or songs--though they are not themselves the primary world--give us glimpses of the wider world of our whole selves, the selves which are real enough to accept the world's darkness as well as its light...A story where myth, fantasy, fairy tale, or science fiction explore and ask questions moves beyond fragmatic dailiness to wonder. Rather than taking the child away from the real world, such stories are preparation for living in the real world with courage and expectancy."

I am reminded this morning that what we do is far less important than the Love behind it. Whether we do Santa or not, whether we buy an Elf on the Shelf or not, the Spirit of Christmas, the Truth of Christmas--Love incarnate--is what shines through. This Love motivated Saint Nicholas's generosity once upon a time. This Love leads an elderly couple in Evergreen to bring the saint's story to life for hundreds of children. This same Love moves us to create magic for our littles.

In the seemingly silly exercise of placing Sparkle above the microwave, the kids feel this Love, receive it, believe it. They act on it by writing letters to Santa with "courage and expectancy," an expression of the faith and hope they are learning. And so all these other tales of Christmas are brought into harmony with the miraculous story of a baby God, lying in a manger, for love of the whole, wide world.

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