One Christmas Eve when I was four years old my eleven year old sister told me in the dark of her room in one long breath that there was no Santa, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy. Lying in bed that night I still tried to hear Santa’s sleigh bells but when the sound never came, I stopped believing. Then in grade school, friends’ parents would ask me to “pretend” that Santa came to my house because their children still believed. I remember Tanya’s dad from the yellow house up the street pulling me aside and politely telling me, “Santa comes to our house, so please, for Tanya’s sake, pretend he comes to yours too.”
Christmas began to take on a sleigh load of negative feelings and with its imminent arrival every year I grew to fear Christmas. Raised Catholic my mother did a wonderful job to teach our family Christian beliefs about Christmas. I learned about Jesus being born in a manger, the gift of peace, and the joy of giving love to others. Sitting in church on Christmas Eve nights I would imagine that I was part of the manger scene. Sometimes I was Mary, absorbed in the true beauty of it all. And sometimes I was one of the Wise Men traveling from afar, following the star with great anticipation of meeting the Messiah. This part of Christmas gave me peace and kept my faith alive. Back in school after Christmas break, the anxiety started all over again, I had to invent gifts that Santa brought.
Years later, as a parent with the birth of our children, I struggled with how to celebrate Christmas without bringing Santa into the whole thing. How does one raise children to focus on the beauty that Christmas offers, when the commercialism of it all is shoved in your face?
Four years ago, when my children were four and one and a half years old, I received a precious gift. I met Santa. On the morning of December fourteenth as I collected the morning paper from the front porch I found a small poinsettia on our door-mat, wrapped in gold tissue and tied with a red ribbon. In meticulous printing our last name was written on a tag in unfamiliar handwriting. Opening the tag made of silken, creamy white paper, I searched for the giver’s name and only found the words, ‘On the first day of Christmas the McGlotherns received one poinsettia…’ Who could this be from?
The next morning, a bit earlier, as I opened the door to collect the newspaper sitting right next to The Seattle Times sat a beautiful gift bag bearing two delicately wrapped hand-dipped, off-white candles. I placed them in silver candlesticks next to the poinsettia in our front window. The same precise manuscript indicated the gift was indeed for us with the message, ‘On the second day of Christmas the McGlotherns received two glittering candles…’ Were the three dots a sign? An indication of a promise? Perhaps more to come? I ran to the calendar and counted. Ten more days until Christmas. The twenty-fifth would be the “twelfth day.” Not knowing any history about a “twelve days of Christmas” tradition, I was curious. Is this a celebrated tradition I don’t know anything about, similar to the “Secret Santa” tradition some celebrate in the workplace? On the third day of Christmas “three tinkling bells” waited on our doorstep. Hanging them from the tree, in the front window, I wondered who could be doing this. I never heard a car, voices or footsteps.
Our four-year-old daughter, started coming into our room every morning with the question, “Have you checked the front porch yet, mama?” I was trying really hard to curb my enthusiasm and wait until she could be the one to check the door. If I woke first I would avoid the front room and busy myself with undone dishes, cleaning fingerprints off the refrigerator, anything to keep myself from going to the front door and turning the knob. Each morning continued to greet us with beautifully wrapped surprises; candy canes, homemade molasses cookies, walnuts the size of small apples, Satsumas as sweet as summer, and chocolates that were too irresistible to stop at just one. On the fifth day of Christmas we opened a box with a photograph glued to the lid. The picture made me stop and look closely. It was a picture of a handprint in the snow, a child’s handprint, with the five digits perfectly imprinted into the white, glistening snow. Inside were five homemade snowflake ornaments hanging from delicate pink thread. I knew the giver was creative, thoughtful and most of all believed in Christmas.
Soon my friends and family all knew about it and would brain storm with me to decipher who these thoughtful surprises were from. My neighbor even volunteered to stalk my front porch every morning. Although I was mostly content not knowing the giver, I was still curious.
Through all of this excitement, I forgot I didn’t believe in Santa. I forgot I hated Christmas. Each day was offering me a new joy besides a surprise gift at the front door. I discovered the great delight of baking sugar cookies with our four-year-old daughter. In years past, the baking was a chore. Christmas shopping wasn’t a burden, our list was short and family received homemade gifts. Our friends received a Christmas card with a handwritten message. Even the cold, grey weather was comforting. I didn’t long for the colors of springtime; instead I found solace from the dark sky and consolation from the light of a simple white candle. I never once turned on the television, so I wasn’t aware of the Christmas sales, hot items of the season or the temptations of the last minute shopper. Evenings were spent reading Christmas books, listening to the Nutcracker, playing games and coloring. I taught our children about my childhood traditions of putting evergreen on the fireplace mantel, straw in the manger and hanging mistletoe in doorways. My husband strung lights, hung wreaths, and helped our children hang their stockings. He helped our daughter write her letter to Santa. I saw how Santa could be brought into the season without being the main focus and without corrupting my mood or Christmas spirit. We talked about Jesus’ birth, buying a goat through the Heifer Project, making gifts for family and what color of sprinkles our friends would like on their cookies. All our daughter wanted for Christmas was a pants belt and for her brother to have his own doll. Santa’s job would be simple.
By the tenth day of Christmas, the day we received ten walnuts and a silver nutcracker, all of our friends and family knew about our morning doorstep surprises and wished they had done something like this. They all responded with passionate wonder. I want to do that, they all echoed. Without these exact words their responses were saying: I want to reach out, I want to give, I want to believe and share in the spirit of the season.
On Christmas Eve, I went to bed listening for sleigh bells believing that if I was supposed to find out who was behind the mystery I would. At five in the morning our son, hollered out in his sleep. His cries woke me and although he fell back to sleep easily, I lay in the dark, tossing and turning. Like many children around the world that morning I hopped out of bed, unable to keep still. I went into the living room and turned on the tree lights, lit the off-white candles in the window and sat down with a cup of hot tea and my journal. The tea went cold before I had a sip and my journal remained unopened. I went back and forth to the window, peering out into the dark morning, I kept opening the front door. I even stood on a chair to peer out the window at the top of the door. Nothing. I wrote a note to the mystery elves, telling them that if I never found out who they were I wanted them to know they changed my Christmases forever. At eight o’ clock, when my family was awake pulling a pants belt and baby doll out of their stockings I checked the door one more time. Empty except for my note. Did they forget?
Forty-five minutes later, with Christmas wrapping strewn around the room our coffee mugs empty, I heard singing outside. “Honey”, my husband said gently, “You are going to want to answer the door.” The caroling was coming from our front porch. Opening the door, I was surprised to see my new friend Erika, her husband and their three sleepy daughters. I collapsed into Erika’s arms, “I’m so glad it’s you. I never even thought of you being the ones, “I wept softly. We wiped each other’s tears of joy. “You helped me to believe in Christmas again,” I whispered.
That morning and now, Santa for me is just another way to bring giving into the Christmas season. Not getting, but giving. We can teach our children the beauty of simplicity by example. The following Christmas, we did the same for an un-expecting family a few blocks away. And the smiles on their faces told me I was helping to carry on a tradition that was drenched in love and sprinkled with the true spirit of the season.