Ready to Know

Santa is a big deal in our house. Letters are written and given to Hermey, our Elf on the Shelf, for safe passage. Santa’s personality and lifestyle choices are hotly debated (“Where do you think he vacations? Does he brush his teeth?”). Notes for Santa are left at bedsides.

Over the years, I have done nothing to diminish Ella and Annie’s belief in Santa; on the contrary, I’ve encouraged it. Stocking gifts are wrapped just so every Christmas and placed outside the girls’ bedrooms. Hermey has brought back letters from St. Nick bearing the North Pole postal cancellation. If a gift wasn’t able to be procured, Santa has provided a written explanation. He might even get “caught” in our living room Christmas photos every year.
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See, I love Christmas. I also love magic and wonder and hope, all of which continue to bloom and surround the girls every Christmas season. For that, I am thrilled. There is so damned much in the world today that is all too sad, practical, and heavy. Despite how hard we try to protect our kids from losing loved ones, financial difficulties, work-related stress, divorce, etc., we cannot. Beyond our own homes, our 24/7 media make it all but impossible for even children to avoid at least some exposure to natural disasters, refugee crises, racial tensions, gun violence, diseases, deaths of celebrities, politics.

Allowing our girls to put aside the all-too-real world, allowing them to experience awe and joy and delighted anticipation through Santa, allowing them to believe in something magical – to just be kids for a little while longer (while simultaneously celebrating the happiness that is Christmas) – has been one of my most important and fulfilling decisions as a parent. That they have so adored Santa and all he represents to them – love, mischief, kindness, generosity – and that they have felt so loved in return has made that decision even more wonderful.

Because Santa is so special to Ella and Annie, I have gone to great lengths to protect him. Questions were answered with deliberate and measured responses that were never misleading but never laid everything on the table, either.

The girls are normal human children, however, so as they’ve grown older, doubts have understandably crept in. The details that were easily glossed over as kindergarteners (How can Santa possibly reach everyone’s house in one night? If these gifts came form the North Pole, why does it say they were made in China?) were harder to ignore in 3rd or 4th grade. With each passing year, though, even as they posited and became dubious, it became clear that they did not want Santa to be something else; they still wanted him to be real. Despite their curiosity and occasional downright skepticism, they told us – literally and figuratively – that they did not want us to answer the question they’d been throwing at us: “Are you and Daddy really Santa?”

They didn’t really want to know. So we didn’t tell them.

It was complicated too, though, because keeping up the myth of Santa in the age of live streaming and Google searching and school bus taunting is, quite frankly, exhausting. Still, we’d made it through this holiday season with the girls writing letters to Santa and placing them beside Hermey, leaving food for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, and genuinely being thrilled that “he remembered” everything they asked for on Christmas morning. They believed for another year. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought no more of it.

Which was why it caught me by such surprise when – last week, a full 11 days after Christmas – Ella interrupted our otherwise non-Christmas dinner conversation with an extremely direct, “So. Tell me the truth. Are you guys the ones who buy the gifts we ask for from Santa and put them in the living room each year?”

Her well-crafted question left little wiggle room to spin the response in such a way that it didn’t tell her what she didn’t want to know: the truth. Spinning my wheels, I gave her one of my standard Santa deflections. “Hm. How come you’re asking?”

She sat up a little straighter and enunciated clearly, as though maybe she’d practiced beforehand, “Because when I was on your computer today on Amazon, right there under Stuff You’d Bought were the exact gifts I’d asked Santa for. So I’m thinking that, yeah, you guys are the ones who buy the Santa gifts and give them to us.”

Welp.
Shit.
THANKS A LOT, AMAZON.

Apparently, despite maybe not wanting to know the truth, Ella was ready to hear it after all. There was only one (big) problem: Annie, who was sitting three feet away. At two years Ella’s junior, Annie still very much believes – and, despite her curiosity and bravado, it was quickly obvious that Annie really, really, really did not want to hear the answer to Ella’s question.
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Christmas morning breakfast-making

After volleying back and forth for a bit, Ella agreed to table the discussion for a later time. I was relieved – not only for Annie’s sake, but also because it meant I’d have the opportunity to prepare for how I’d planned, for years, to break the Santa News… via a letter I’d seen on the internet.

The gist was this: explain that we are not, in fact, Santa – but we act as Santa and fill her stocking, buy her “Santa” gifts, etc; let her know that we think believing in Santa and acting as Santa are tremendously important and are about sharing love, kindness, wonder, and hope; and that, now that she was “in” on it, we would like her to preserve the magic of Santa for those who still believe (see: Annie).

I was not at all sure how this would go over. I’ve heard stories of kids who were furious with their parents for, as they saw it, lying to them. I’ve heard of others who were so upset and heartbroken, they fell apart. Nick and I crossed our fingers that Ella would see it as we did: that believing in Santa felt so amazing and brought her such happiness, and “real life” is so pressing and heavy, we wanted to preserve this bit of childhood for as long as we could.

At bedtime, we checked to see if Ella wanted to hear a more detailed answer to her earlier question. She hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided that yes, she did.

She was finally, truly ready.

Rather than read the letter herself, Ella asked me to do it. When my voice hitched at the part about how we hoped she would continue these traditions for her own children someday, I discovered the other reason I’ve gone to such lengths to keep Santa all these years: because I loved it so much.

I loved how earnestly the girls debated which reindeer was Santa’s favorite. I loved how carefully they looked over the cookies each Christmas Eve, selecting the ones that were just right. I loved the twinkle in their eyes as they flew down the stairs on Christmas morning, eager to see if he’d actually come. Simply, I adored the deep-seated joy that Santa brought them; playing a part in cultivating that joy was one of my favorite parts of Christmas, of being a parent.

After I’d finished reading and we asked if she had any questions, the first words out of Ella’s mouth were directed at Nick: “Wait. So you drink the whiskey every year?? Is THAT why we leave whiskey for Santa?”

(Nick told her this was one of his more brilliant parenting decisions. Why we didn’t decide 13 Christmases ago that Santa needed chocolate and a Starbucks for the journey home is a solid failure on my part.)
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Cookies… milk… and whiskey

Ella had a few other queries, most of which we answered. I did, however, flat-out refuse to explain how Santa’s image appears in our photos each year or how I create Hermey’s handwriting; some things are meant to be kept secret.

To our delight and relief, after some time to process and assimilate, Ella seemed to feel exactly the way we did about Santa. Although I’m sure she was disappointed that a plump, omniscient, bearded elf does not, in fact, deliver her presents each year, she took in our explanation and made it her own.

As we were finishing the conversation, I told her that, despite this new information, I planned to continue all of our traditions every year – from putting stockings the hallway to moving Hermey to scattering reindeer food. Before I could complete my sentence, Ella chimed in with, “Well, of course! It wouldn’t be Christmas without those!”

She also informed me that she will still be leaving a letter with Hermey to deliver to Santa… because that’s just what we do, and that’s the truth.
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‘Hamilton’ style: Hermey will be back…

Right This Very Minute

I’m not feeling quite myself this year. I don’t know exactly why – anxiety? Hints of depression? Late Thanksgiving, meaning fewer days between then and Christmas, meaning OhMyGodThereIsNoTimeWTF stress? I don’t know, but it’s been a bit rough these past few weeks.

I know I’m not alone in this. The holidays bring a mix of emotions for so many people – the glorious highs of… traditions! Food! Time with family! Decorating the tree! Yes, let’s watch Elf for the third time this month! And the soul-crushing lows of… so much to do! Time with family! What do you mean you want to ask Santa for something different? Holy crap, did I move the damn elf tonight? I AM BEING MERRY AND BRIGHT. This time of year can be difficult and stressful and exhausting under really good circumstances, but when you struggle with anxiety and depression, it can be a whole other ballgame.

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When I was growing up, we used to watch the Rockefeller Center tree lighting on TV every year. Sometimes, in the living room, cozied up on the couch with a blanket. Other times, in the kitchen, standing beside the island or propped on one of the swivel bar chairs. I don’t remember many of the performances, but I do remember the grand ending: that magical moment when POP! all of the thousand gazillion lights illuminated at once, its own little Christmas miracle.

Because we lived just an hour outside of Manhattan, we used to see the tree quite often, too. It is absolutely as grand and marvelous in person as it is on television – more so, really – with the skating rink below (which is usually so crowded, you couldn’t pay me to set foot skate on it, but whatever) and – what used to be – quaint shops lining the plaza.

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Visiting the tree in 2011.

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Approximately ten days ago, a couple of friends and family members posted on Facebook that they had already completed their Christmas shopping. I didn’t really read their posts as bragging – more just jauntily and proudly stating a fact – but it still made me kind of want to refill their salt shakers with sugar.

Was I jealous? You bet your ass I was. Because, at that time, I had not purchased one single Christmas gift. NOT ONE SINGLE GIFT. Well, that’s not entirely true, because Nick and I picked up a few things for family members in Puerto Rico when we were there this summer, but I had not yet actively begun my real Christmas shopping. Alongside that jealousy, however, was a feeling of sheer panic: holy shit, I need to get shopping NOW but I have NO IDEA what to get everyone. There was exasperation. There was shame. There were tears. It was ugly.

Christmas is, really and truly, my most favorite time of the year. I’m “allowed” to listen to Christmas music on my birthday (November 22nd), but I sneak it earlier when I’m alone because it makes me so happy. The traditions my family has are among my most looked-forward-to moments of all of the days. I love December – the smells, the food; even that madness-inducing elf (who is rarely on a shelf) makes me smile rather than grouse. But the joy just hasn’t been there, which has only made me more upset.

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I was mid-sentence talking to Annie last week when I suddenly remembered something from my to-do book that I’d forgotten about. As I recalled the item, I gasped out loud and interrupted myself, saying, “Oh shoot – I forgot about that!” Understandably, Annie asked what the problem was. I explained that there wasn’t really a problem – I’d just forgotten to do something on my list, and I’d need to do it later. I then sighed and muttered that I had a helluva lot to do, so my list would never really end – that’s just the way it is.

Annie brightened. “Mom? Let’s say that all of the things you have to do weigh something.”

Okay.

“Let’s say that they weigh ten pounds. You’re carrying ten pounds.”

Okay, I can do that.

“Well now, guess what? You only have to carry five pounds!”

Ummm… And why is that?

“Because I’m going to take the other five pounds from you to help you out so you don’t have as much to do. Does that feel better?”

Sweet love, it feels incredible. That might be one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.

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Our advent calendars started a three days ago. This year, we’re doing RACKS – random acts of Christmas kindness – and I absolutely love that. I love that it makes me think of something beyond myself for a day, that I’m looking out into the world. I’m finding it really pretty amazing.

I’m also finding it hard to concentrate on what I want to be doing – RACKs, watching Christmas movies with the girls, reading Christmas books, just sitting back and enjoying the season – because of all the things I need to be doing. Most of the presents have been purchased by now (thank God for Amazon; setting foot into actual stores is making me break out in hives this year), but the ones that require some thought and attention – the homemade ones, the ones using photos and love and goodness, the ones that mean the most to me – are the ones that also require the most time and energy. I love doing it – I really do – but it is also exhausting and stressful.

Ditto for other Christmas traditions. That advent calendar? One of the best parts of the season, bar none, but it takes weeks of planning (and purchasing and researching and prepping) to pull it off successfully. I adore reading Christmas books with the girls and saw this cute idea online for wrapping 24 books and reading one each day. But then I found that I actually had to wrap the damn books, and now we need to find time to read them, which sometimes – even only three days in – feels more like a punishment than a reward.

How is it possible that the things I love the most are also the things that make me the most crazy?

Scratch that. I could say the same thing about basically every member of my family. Point taken.

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The girls asked that we set aside time tonight to listen to the latest installment in our Percy Jackson saga. I agreed, especially given that it was early enough to listen to Percy and read tonight’s Christmas book. It would be a good night, damn it all!

We’d just begun listening to our new chapter shortly after 8 p.m. when the phone rang; I had no idea who would be calling (we don’t get too many calls at that hour aside from telemarketers) and was quite surprised to see my mom’s number on the caller ID. This was a particularly strange time to call; what on earth could she want? Did I forget to do something? Had something bad happened?

Hi, Mom!

“Honey? I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Rockefeller Center tree lighting is taking place tonight…”

Oh – no, I didn’t know…

“…  and Mariah Carey is singing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’**.”

** Ella’s favorite Christmas song, ever

Oh, okay…

“I mean right now. She’s singing right now, so if you want to turn it on…”

Great! I will! It’s on NBC, right?

“Yes, NBC…”

Thanks, Mom – turning it on now!

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I paused the CD, fumbled with the remote and found our NBC affiliate (ironically, one of only two channels that I’ve actually memorized because virtually everything I watch is DVR’d), and we listened to Mariah. As the broadcast went to commercial, it informed us of who the upcoming singers and performers would be, including some names Ella and Annie recognized immediately – Idina Menzel (“That’s ELSA!!”), Pentatonix, Sara Bareilles (“She sings ‘Brave’!”), Lady Gaga, the Rockettes.

“Mom! Can we please watch the rest?? I don’t care if we skip Percy – we need to see this!”

And I realized, this wasn’t part of the plan… but yes indeed, we do need to see this. This is exactly what we need – a little Christmas, right this very minute. We scrambled upstairs and climbed into my bed to watch the TV in there and the girls were absolutely entranced, listening to every artist – even the ones with whom they were completely unfamiliar – with rapt attention.

Pentatonix had just begun to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” when the phone rang again (“Who the $*#& is it now??”) and I heard my dad’s voice on the other end.

“Just wanted to be sure that you’re watching the Rockefeller Center…”

Yes! We are! We’re watching right now – thank you!

“Okay, good. Talk to you later.”

And with that, he hung up, having said all he needed to say.

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During the commercial breaks, the girls and I found the time to read tonight’s book (Light of Christmas, about a boy who’s chosen to light his village’s Christmas tree – how d’you like THEM apples??). We snuggled closer after I expressed my surprise that the NBC Today Show hosts actually mentioned the protests that were occurring because of the failure to indict the (white) NYPD police officer who killed (black) Eric Garner after he put him in an (illegal) chokehold.

“But that’s not fair, Mama! How can that happen? Why are some people still afraid of black people? Why are black people still treated differently?”

Ah, my dears, the questions for the ages… I am so, so glad that you are asking, and we must continue this discussion… but for tonight I hope you’ll forgive me if we agree that it is not okay, agree that we must keep talking and make change, and then agree to take a deep breath and try to enjoy this tree lighting. 

“Okay, Mom. Let’s do that.”

And so we did, turning off the lights in the bedroom moments before the Rockefeller tree burst into dazzling color, twinkling everywhere – magic, right before our eyes.

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I don’t know if it was fate, God, Santa Claus, or just good luck that guided my parents tonight, but the fact that both of them called to tell me about the tree lighting was really something spectacular. I cannot remember the last time that happened.

Whatever the reason, I’m damned glad they did, because tonight – for the first time in a long while – I feel like myself again. I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep (and, at 10:30 p.m., that’s saying something), but, because of those stolen magic moments with Annie and Ella, I somehow feel like it will all be okay.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to accomplish a few things before my alarm goes off to remind me to put the elf in a new place. I’m thinking maybe atop the new little Christmas tree that my mom sent the girls for Thanksgiving – you know, full circle and all that.

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My view tonight – Ella on my left, Annie on my right, and Pentatonix on the TV. It was delightful.