Mid-January may seem an odd time to reflect on Santa Claus. Musing on Santa come in December as we anticipate Christmas. By this time of year, Santa is a memory, fading from view as the year advances. But Santa’s fade is exactly what fills my mind right now, especially since I fear this will be his final fade for me.
My parents introduced me to the idea of Santa early on. Along with my sisters, I would visit him every December and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. And every year Christmas morning I discovered the presents he left under the tree and the stockings he filled with treasures. Should I waver in my belief, I would recall the story my mother once told me of how her brother, my Uncle Norm, once woke up in the middle of the night one Christmas, sneaked downstairs, and actually saw Santa putting presents under the tree. And, of course, I wanted the magic and wonder. So I believed until well into elementary school years.
The end for Santa came gradually. I was in 4th or 5th grade, and we were preparing to visit my Great-Aunt for Easter. My sister and I brought our bags out to car. As we waited for Dad to come out and put them in the trunk, we noticed some bright colored baskets tucked way back, almost out of sight behind the suitcases. Easter baskets. Candy. Chocolate Easter bunnies. Our parents had packed our Easter baskets. And if they were bringing the Easter baskets, that could only mean the Easter bunny was not, and that could only mean… there was no Easter bunny! That was a bit of a shock. But only a bit. After all, the Easter bunny is not as big a deal as Santa. You don’t write letters to the Easter bunny or visit the Easter bunny to tell him what you want in your basket. Indeed, to me the Easter bunny always felt a little like an after-thought, tacked onto a holiday that did not really have anything to do with chocolate anyway. So I got over the disappointment pretty quickly. (The chocolate still tasted as good no matter who brought it.) And the year went on. Sometime between April and December, I drifted into the conclusion that if the Easter bunny was not real, Santa was not either. I never announced my revelation to my parents, but at some point they knew. I also never discussed the matter with my sisters. I don’t really know when they figured things out. We all went along pretending we believed in Santa for a few years because it was fun. And gave my mother an excuse to buy extra presents for us. But Santa had faded away as an actual presence.
One of my sisters got married just after college, and soon she had kids and Santa returned for them. But Santa is really the province of parents. As an uncle, I looked on and enjoyed from the sidelines.
And then my daughter was born. She was only a few weeks old for her first Christmas, so Santa waited. The next year, he showed up a little, and the year after that we traveled to my sister’s which was exciting enough on its own to overshadow Santa. But the next year she was old enough to really grasp the concept of Santa Claus. As Christmas approached, I remembered a favorite Christmas book of mine, The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, collecting the letters that he wrote, in the guise of Father Christmas, for his children every year. (If you are a Tolkien fan, or Santa fan, you definitely should check out this wonderful book.) I ever so briefly thought of reading the letters to my daughter, but almost immediately I decided I could and should write my own. That year, Santa left a letter on the dining room table next to the plate of now-eaten cookies she had left out for him. When she found the letter, she asked me to read it. Santa described his visit to our house, and how some of her stuffed animals helped him set out the presents. My daughter was entranced by Frosty the Snowman that year, and the letter talked Frosty coming along, too. And then a moment of marvelous serendipity occurred. We had a white Christmas that year. Just before my daughter had come down, I had gone out onto the back deck for some reason, and when I came back inside, some snow fell from my shoes. As I finished reading Santa’s letter, my daughter looked over and spied the lump of snow on the floor. Actual, tangible proof that Frosty had been in our house during the night. And if Frosty, then of course, Santa.
And so Santa returned to my life. Every year, as Christmas approached, I would pull out parchment paper and my glass quill pen and write a letter detailing the latest happenings at the North Pole. Over the years the stories grew longer and more complex (the longest letter running 12 handwritten pages). Tales of pirate attacks on Santa’s warehouses, of the misadventures of the elf Sala, who never could quite get it together to produce the drum set my daughter kept asking for. Tales of quests for gold and dragon eggs and giant monsters. The cast of characters eventually included elves and pirates and droids and spies and even the crotchety old guy who ran the Frostee Freeze stand. Every year, as I sat down to write, I could feel Santa’s presence come close. I slipped into his voice and persona to channel his tales in his strange, angular hand-writing. Then, on Christmas Day my daughter would hand me the letter to read out loud, and Santa’s presence would again take over as I slipped into his voice and cadence as I read.
My daughter has a strong love of fantasy and magic and wonder, and so she kept her belief in Santa longer than most kids. And even into middle school, it was never clear to my wife and me how much she still believed – sometimes she would talk like she knew full well who was actually supplying those presents and sometimes it was not so clear. During these years, every time I picked up the quill to start the year’s letter, I wondered if this letter might prove Santa’s last.
But it did not. Even once it was clear that she had left Santa behind, she still enjoyed the letters. When I ask if they should stop, she says no. But the readings are no longer a focal point of Christmas morning, instead they can feel more of an after thought. This Christmas, we did not get to the letter until after dinner in the evening, and then mostly because my wife pointed it out. It was a short letter, written quickly during a break in Christmas Eve preparations, and the reading was a small pause after Christmas dinner was cleared away.
Sometime this year, I will ask my daughter if the letters still carry any meaning for her. I suspect the answer may be no, that we are doing them now just because. So perhaps the time has come to set the quill down and let the tradition fade. For a second time, I will bid farewell to Santa. I will miss my annual visits with Santa, those glimpses of his world of magic and whimsy.
But perhaps, someday, there will be more young children in the family, ready to meet the old gentleman. Perhaps, for a third time, he and I will strike up our acquaintance. I hope so.