When my husband and I were newly married, and our life with no kids was still streamlined and slow, we had plenty of time to dream about the family we would grow. It was the start of one holiday season, when the Sears Christmas Wish book arrived, that we got to talking about holiday traditions.
In his family, his uncle dressed up as Santa Claus every Christmas Eve. With tears in his eyes and sometimes laughter, my husband told me story after story. How the children would squeal and the adults join in, as Santa hand pulled gift after gift from his bag with a flourish, always a gift for each and every person present. These memories were magic for everyone. As the kids counted down in anticipation, the adults gathered to await his arrival, the clever gifts Santa would bring and even the songs he would ask the children to sing.
And so that year we decided to purchase the Deluxe Santa Suit advertised in that very same Sears Christmas Wish Book. The professional quality fur-lined red suit came complete with Santa's cap, spectacles, a handbell, wig, mustache and beard -- and everything we would need to make our very own family tradition.
And as our family grew, year after year, Santa always arrived on Christmas Eve. Our girls would sing and smile and sometimes Zoe would shake with nervousness. We could always hear him approaching, ringing his bell and cheerily calling " Ho, Ho, Ho."
Santa came in from the backyard patio, through the french doors, he rang the front doorbell and left sled tracks in our desert landscaped front yard. And as the girls grew older, they dearly hoped that " that" year Daddy would be home to see him.
Somehow, each year Daddy would miss Santa's arrival. He had to run out for milk, help the neighbor with his car or run to the store for medicine, the year the girls were sick -- and finally, the final year both of our daughters believed, he came in the middle of the night. The girls found Santa sitting under the dim light of the tree, eating his cookies and milk, awaking them from their sleep with a hearty, "Ho Ho Ho." And in their middle-of-the-night delirious state, the girls stood watching him from the hallway, oohing and ahhing at their good fortune to catch him in the act, smiling sleepily with happiness that Santa didn't miss their house after all -- giggling and whispering quietly so they wouldn't wake their Daddy who was "asleep" down the hall.
My girls delighted in recounting these visits to Daddy, to their friends and other family. And every time the story was told they started with the juiciest fact of all: each time Santa came to visit, he insisted on a kiss from Mommy. The girls, sure that this put them in Santa's good graces, would laugh and sing and insist that Mommy get to the important business of kissing Santa Claus under the mistletoe.
So this year, as Christmas draws near, Zoe, now a tween, is asking... "Will Santa still come this Christmas Eve?" But this year, different from all the rest, she looks at her Daddy for the answer to this question.
Zoe started middle school recently, and works closely with her classmates in a small but social special education classroom environment. And so before Easter last year, to save Zoe from any potential embarrassment, I knew the time had come to talk truth about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and with that, I knew, the crashing reality that mom and dad are Santa too.
More specifically, that the guy singing "Jingle Bells" and arriving every Christmas Eve in his fancy Santa suit with its stuffed Santa belly, soft white beard and shiny black boots is actually her Daddy. Her Daddy who glows with excitement to give his girls his holiday best each year. And that yeah, Mommy kissing Santa all these years really isn't as scandalous as it seems, because well... I get to kiss Santa every day.
I went to my husband before the big talk to tell him it was time. Without missing a beat he looked me in the eye and said, "That will break my heart." Zoe's big sister had figured out the truth two summers before and spent hours sobbing, then quickly recovered when she realized it was her big sister responsibility to help keep the magic alive.
So one afternoon I sat down with Zoe. I began talking about what a big girl she has become, and how proud I am of her. She is so determined, independent and excited about middle school. I asked her if she was excited about Easter and what was her favorite part? She was quick to gush about the stuffed animals and Easter decorations, the sugar cookies we would make... but then she drew her breath, paused and said, "the best part about holidays is spending time with my family."
"Holiday traditions are about family," I said, thankful for the lead-in. "And when you are little, Mom and Dad help create traditions that are magical for kids, so that you experience the fun and excitement of the holiday." For simplicity's sake, I left religion out of this conversation and went on, "So your parents, your Mom and Dad, make this magic, by pretending to be the Easter Bunny." No going back now, I thought, seeing her mouth fall open in surprise. "We pretend to 'be' the Easter Bunny, hiding the Easter eggs, filling your baskets and leaving them for you on Easter morning."
At this point, she stopped me, slightly incredulous. "Really? You and Daddy?" She was surprised, but she was smiling. She looked... elated, even excited. No shock, no tears as I had expected -- just a huge smile. After I made sure she really did understand the magnitude of this, I went on to Christmas.
"So..." I said. "Now that you know the Easter Bunny is really Mom and Dad.... What do you think about Santa Claus?"
"You," she responded, pointing her finger at me. "We keep the story of St. Nick alive," I say. I watch her process this, the changing emotions visible on her face. "And Santa is..." she began, and pointed at Daddy, who was now close by, and I nodded.
We sat for just a moment, and then she was coming toward me, her arms clumsily wrapping around my shoulders as I pulled her the rest of the way into me.
"Thank you, thank you...," she gushed, holding and hugging me tightly, "for being the Easter Bunny and Santa and for making our family time so special. I love my family," she said, out of words, sighing and... smiling.
After, I sat alone. Thinking. I was so involved in my own perception of tradition -- so afraid to let go -- that I never imagined this.
And as always when I least expect it, Zoe says something that inspires me, that teaches me, and she gives me just a glimpse of the young woman she is becoming.
I never imagined that she would thank me. That she would be the one to make sure our holiday magic remains, by reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas and how special our family time together will always be -- even without Santa.