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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