Shortly before I snapped this picture, I told Katie, with maybe just a wee bit of soppiness, "we'd better make this picture a good one, it's probably going to be our last."
My thoughts weren't mere bah humbug. I was actually reflecting on the scene that took place while we were waiting in line to see Santa. Our Elliott, who often thinks deeper than the surface of the moment, had a serious look on his face. Something told me it was connected to something more than naughty and nice list anxieties. I was right. Before I could ask Elliott what was going on, he told Katie, "I don't want to sit on Santa's lap."
Katie asked him why.
His response, one that with the force of a hurricane has leveled the Christmastime joy of many a parent: "Because Santa Clause isn't real."
In an instant Katie died inside and came back to life just in time to interrupt Elliott's continuing exposition on the merits of this whole Santa Claus deal. She knew we were only seconds away from Elliott making an unbeliever out of his brother Ian and every other Santa loving child within earshot of an unusually passionate Elliott. This boy really had no intention of sitting on this fraud's lap. Katie successfully ended Elliott's speech, but his face continued on with a sudden disdain for the lies of Christmases past.
I called Elliott over next to me and I said, "Listen pal, right now, I really don't care whether you believe in Santa Clause or not. I don't. But part of Christmas is finding ways to make other people happy. Santa makes your mom happy. So for tonight, I'm going to believe in Santa, and you're going to sit on his lap and smile like you do too."
Looking at the picture above, I'd say he came through like a champ. I'm glad he did, because I'll repeat, it will probably be the last of these pictures.
A couple of nights later I found Elliott and Katie snuggled up in bed. I asked them what they were doing. Not that mama and her son snuggling is the least bit suspicious in our house, they simply looked engaged in something more serious than snuggling. It turns out Katie was sharing a letter with Elliott she'd read online. It actually comes from a 2009 New York Times piece titled No Longer Believing in Santa. The letter reads like this:
I'm grateful my wife is our boys' mama. She is always thoughtful about the way she shares life's ultimate truths and lies with them. For sure, it's the teacher in her. Life doesn't have a lesson she isn't up for teaching. But much more than that, she really is the love and magic and hope and happiness that makes her a wonderful fit on Santa's team.
As for me, I won't lie. I'm glad the Santa myth is coming to an end. Sure, Ian continues to cling to it. But I know Ian. He'll cling to anything right now that increases the odds of him receiving an extra pack of Pokemon cards Christmas morning. Even the idea those cards were delivered by a larger than real life man whisked around the world in the wake of a mighty team of flying reindeer.
But Pokemon cards will soon lose their appeal. He too will soon say, "I don't want to sit on Santa's lap."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to Santa. He's a fun way to bring magic into our kids' lives. But he's a fictional story riding the coattails of the greatest and most truthful story ever told. The contrast in that has always disturbed me a bit.
I don't think this contrast is nearly as harmful to kids as it is to adults. Most kids who believe in Santa are too young to grasp the complex difference between a human created myth built on magic and a God created gospel built on the greatest love ever known. Shoot, that reality challenges many adults, including me. But this is the time of the year when I should be fully focused on what Christmas really signifies. The birth of a Savior. The only light in the world that never has and never will burn out. The only answer - and I've experimented with a lot of them - in a world filled with never ending questions, that has ever made sense to me.
Everything real and meaningful in my life was born in a manger. Most everything Santa ever brought me has long been forgotten. (Although that little cassette recorder I got when I was about Elliott's age is still one of the coolest gifts ever). The truth is, as our kids cling less and less to the story of Santa, we'll be able to focus more of their attention on the birth of Christ. I don't say that with guilt - I know God knows the love we've poured into our kids through the Santa myth. But our kids grow up, their own stories evolve, and I'm responsible for shaping that evolution. More and more they'll begin to see that Santa may have changed the toys they played with or the clothes they wore, but the Gospel changes everything.
There are a couple of songs I listen to almost every day. The reality is Christmas can sing in our hearts as we rise every single morning. The song below is one that helps make that happen in my life.
I wish every one of you a very merry Christmas. I hope this season brings you the love and magic and hope and happiness found in Santa.
Most of all, though, I pray this Christmas you'll feel embraced by the love of that child in a manger. A love that made a way for each and every one of us to come just as we are - to live in God's presence, forever.