I am ambivalent about Santa Claus.
You see, where I grew up – Manila, the Philippines, in the late 70’s and early 80’s – Christmas was very much a religious holiday. The Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country that wears its fervor proudly, is not a place where kids grow up believing in Santa. I think today it may be, but not when I was growing up.
And before you think I missed out on a wondrous childhood because Santa Claus was not a big part of it, Christmas was very much a magical time for my family. Our Christmas season started early, around mid-November. Houses and stores displayed elaborate Stars of Bethlehem and Nativity scenes, instead of Santa and his elves, and Christmas music (in two or more languages!) blared out from radios. We also had plenty of Christmas parties and secret Santas. But kids who got Santa gifts pretty much knew that their parents were really the ones giving them those gifts, and the kids who didn’t get Santa gifts got gifts from their parents anyway. No big deal.
On Christmas Eve, my family attended Mass at midnight, bought hot chocolate and pastries from street food vendors, and came home to a feast fit for kings, prepared by various aunts and uncles who opted out of the chilly trek to Midnight Mass. Then, our very large extended family would exchange gifts. No Santa, but it was amazing.
Fast forward a couple of decades later, and I married a man from Mississippi and settled down in Memphis (a story for another blog). When we became parents with the birth of our daughter in 2008, we talked about how we would do Santa Claus. My husband knew how I grew up and how I felt about Santa Claus. But he, of course, grew up with the whole Santa experience and had been traumatized when his family finally told him, at age 10, the truth about the Easter Bunny and Santa. Worse, he had first found out from kids at school and had gotten into a fight about it. When he confronted his mother, he expected comfort and reassurance, but it was not to be. He had cried for days and had felt betrayed by everyone in his family.
So we were torn.
We did not want to deprive our children of the magic of Santa Claus so prevalent in American culture. But we dreaded what we thought would be an inevitable and terrible conversation when our children came of age. In the end, with the advice of well-meaning friends and family, but with plenty of fear and trepidation, we kept Santa alive for our daughter and then our son, born in 2012. Needless to say, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny also came along for the ride. But I absolutely drew the line at the Elf on the Shelf – a decision I will never regret.
The day of reckoning came for our daughter earlier this year on Easter Sunday. My husband and I had been so worn out from work that week that we had forgotten to get ready for Easter gifts and the traditional Easter egg hunt in our backyard on Easter morning. So on Easter eve, we had to make do with plastic eggs and candy that we already had around the house.
As soon as my 9-year-old daughter opened up her first Easter egg, she checked the pantry to where our family candy stash had been but was no longer. She turned around, looked me in the eye, and I knew that she knew. She was quiet the rest of that morning, while her 5-year-old brother was none the wiser, whooping joyfully with each Easter egg he cracked open. My husband and I exchanged frantic looks while all of this was going on, and later that afternoon we decided together that it was time for us to tell our daughter the truth about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and yes, Santa.
I could not be prouder of how my daughter handled that conversation. My husband and I had prepared for it with a beautiful letter that we found on the internet, and it helped tremendously. We told her we loved her and now she could be part of the spirit of Santa Claus for her brother, and for all her friends who were not part of the Santa club yet. She cried a little but she understood, and at the end of our conversation, she was thrilled about being Santa for her brother.
I, on the other hand, was a wreck. I have no doubt that it took me much longer than my daughter to recover. Nothing can fully prepare you for your child closing the door on part of their childhood forever.
This Christmas, I am excited that she is helping her dad and me with her brother’s Santa experience, but I know it will never be the same family experience for all of us. I also know that I only have a few more years until the day of reckoning comes for my son, too. In the meantime, I will cherish these remaining Santa years as hard as I can. As it turns out, I am not as ambivalent about Santa Claus as I thought I was.