It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. iTunes shuffles our collection of eclectic albums, creating the playlist that plays pleasantly in the background. Until the opening phrase of Happy Xmas catches my ear.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause. I close my eyes to listen. Such a familiar, comforting melody.
My youngest shouts this over the top of Katy Perry’s “Roar” playing on the radio as I’m dodging traffic on Providence Road, trying to get to gymnastics. I shouldn’t be surprised that questions of this magnitude frequently come from the back seat of the minivan. Questions like, “Why can’t gay people get married?” or, “Are you a Christian, Mom?” or, “What does it mean, ‘I’ve got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it?’” We spend a large quantity of our time in transit; it makes sense that life lessons are dispensed there.
“Some of my friends are saying it’s just your parents who put the presents under the tree,” Haley yells.
I turn down the volume and glance in my rearview mirror. So, I sigh, it’s begun.
“Hmm, they are?” Buying some time, I ask, “What do you think?”
Haley noticed a few years back that not all Santas are created equal. It wasn’t the Halloween-grade red suits, or even the slip-on shoe covers in lieu of black leather boots. No, it was the beard. Perfectly groomed white facial hair with a slit for the mouth signaled fake. Luckily, she accepted the explanation that Santa needs helpers around the world, and while they aren’t the real Santa they are bona fide representatives sanctioned by the Master Elf himself.
When the subject of Santa sightings came up with her younger cousins — so many Santas, so little time — she bragged, “I’ve seen the real Santa,” as in, “you just think you have.”
“At Bass Pro, in Columbia,” she clarified.
Wide-eyed, her spellbound audience gasped, “But, how do you know it’s him?”
“Well,” her eyes darted up to the left, “he’s pretty old, kinda fat and his beard is dusty and oldish. He’s the real one.”
This year, however, we’re skating on thin ice. At 10, her analytical ability and attention to detail are developing at an alarming pace. And she’s getting curious.
“I think that if there is really no Santa Claus and if parents buy the presents and put them under the tree themselves, that would mean that you and Dad are doing it, too, and all of these years you’re doing it, then you are LYING to the kids. Would you lie to me, Mom!?”
Curious and savvy. Case-in-point: The current question — brutal in its honesty — is almost impossible to answer.
Sydney still believes, though at 14 she’s surrounded by peers who’ve long since traded the childish story for a “nobody believes that” attitude, cue eye-roll. But because of Down syndrome, like many developmental phases, she will get there when her little sister does, and Haley isn’t in a hurry to grow up. Maybe it’s her role as baby of the family, but she’s made a conscious decision to stay arrested: She refused to potty-train until 3, and no amount of pleading would coerce her to ditch the diapers. She hung on to her pacifier until 4, hauled her booster chair out of the trash at 7 and to this day lapses into baby talk.
But, as anxious as I’ve been for her to progress, I’m not ready for this childhood rite of passage. Her innocence is adorable; Christmas seen through her eyes becomes new again for us as her parents. The year she was in second grade, she hung a tiny stocking next to her regular one with a note that read: “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus! I love you! This is mine too, Haley Kent! Shign if yove been here!” (sic) At the bottom she penciled two boxes to choose from: “Been here” and “not been here.”
Perpetuating the magic for my girls takes me back to my own childhood, revisiting my father’s firsthand account of seeing Santa. My brother and sister and I would beg to hear the tale: In the wee hours of Christmas morning, when everyone else was sleeping, he heard sleigh bells and looked up just in time to spy Santa’s sleigh flying away. The fantastical vision of my dad as a freckle-faced farm kid, leaning out an attic window into the cold night air, gazing into a starry sky and seeing something so rare, made me shiver with delight and more than a little envy.
He solidified our confidence by staging a Christmas morning I’ll never forget. Rushing into the living room before dawn, utter amazement stopped us in our tracks. There, on the shag carpeting before us, large foot prints walked directly out of the fireplace and to each present laid out on display; for me, it was a Crissy doll, with long red hair that grew from the top of her head when her belly button was pushed — exactly what I’d asked for.
And my dad isn’t the only father (or grandfather) committed to creating wonderful memories for their kids. In the Kent family, Santa has made several appearances. Announced by approaching jingle bells, he’d enter with a “Ho, ho, ho, Meeeeerrrrrry Christmas!” and a bag of presents on his back. The kids were fascinated by this special, home visit.
One year Santa made a substantial impression on our youngest. Spending time with each, he welcomed the children to sit on his lap, even the teenagers. Shy, she hung back, but in a big booming voice he said, “Haley, come sit,” slapping his thigh. “Ho, ho, ho. Have you been a good girl this year?”
Ducking her head she answered, yes, she’d been good. She hugged his furry neck and thanked him politely. Then, present in hand, she hopped down and hurried to her daddy, whispering ecstatically, “He remembered my name!”
It never gets old. The excitement never wears thin. And the kids never make the connection that PaPa is nowhere to be found during Santa’s visit.
“PaPa, where did you go? Santa was just here!”
“He was?! Well, Jim-ah-nee! I go downstairs to get a beer and I miss everything.”
My husband, too, loves to see his daughters enthralled with the wonder of the season and is not above artful manipulation. One Christmas morning, he called urgently, “Girls, come see this!” In footie pajamas they padded across the floor. Peering through the cold glass of the patio door they saw, lying on the deck, under a dusting of snowfall from sometime during the night, a pile of reindeer droppings, a tell-tale sign that Santa — and his reindeer — had indeed been there. And yet another example of what a father will do for his children.
“Is Santa real?” my children want to know. As they face this inevitable epiphany, my hope is they won’t outgrow their belief in the mystical, but will see the spirit of Santa in the ones they love, and everyone around them, if they look closely. And most importantly, it can always be found within them. It isn’t in the goods. It’s not about the stuff: the loot they stockpile, the stack of toys guaranteed to be broken by New Year’s.
In fact, the risk of greediness arising from a Christmas morning piled high in crumpled wrapping paper threatens more disillusionment than questioning Santa’s existence. What I want my girls to get is that the celebration of Christmas — Santa Claus and his jet-setting reindeer delivering presents on one night of global magic, or the miraculous birth of a baby long ago under a star followed by wise men from far away bringing precious gifts, or both — is not about the gifts themselves, but the connection between the giver and the receiver. It’s about the exchange of love and the phenomenon of belonging to each other.
The most magical Christmas memory I have is of the night before, when I was in second grade. I’d woken up and tiptoed down the hall. Afraid I’d be in big trouble if discovered, I peeked stealthily around the corner into the living room. It wasn’t Santa that I saw, but my parents, sitting on the couch together in the dark, the twinkling lights of the tree casting a glow, soft music playing on the stereo turntable. Unseen, I watched, mesmerized. The very air was enchanted. I can still remember the voices of the Ray Conniff Singers:
“And when you’re giving your presents, don’t forget as you give them away, that the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day.”
Their heads turned at the same time, but instead of shooing me back to bed, they motioned me over, making room between them and handing me a mug of hot chocolate; my mom on one side, my dad on the other. Time stopped. Pure love surrounded me. I believed.
“So, I guess you have to decide, Haley Bug.” I offer this to my daughter by way of an answer.
“Well, my friends say, ‘You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?’ and I just go with the flow and say no so they won’t make fun of me, even though I really do believe.”
Saddened that she needs to protect herself from peer pressure, I’m nonetheless touched that her child-like outlook prevails, at least for one more year.
“But, I have a plan. This year? When we go to Bass Pro? I’m going to whisper in Santa’s ear, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ What do you think he’ll say, Mom?”
I smile, “I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe he’ll say, ‘Do you think I’m the real Santa?’”
“Hmm. I think he is. Besides, another reason I know? Last year you two were exhausted and I know there’s no way you could do all that in one night.”
I actually did it. For once I followed through on a threat. I’ve battled my children for years — no, decades — over the condition of their bedrooms. When the eldest two were teens, I all but conceded the fight. Their dark, damp rooms devolved into giant petri dishes, emanating mysteriously mingled odors. Clothes covered the floor, and dishes littered every surface; drinking glasses half-full and film-covered, cereal bowls congealed with the remnants of sugary milk, plates smeared with dried-on leftovers. Trash and treasures alike were shoved into nooks or carelessly strewn about, unprotected, revealing a laissez-faire attitude toward expensive teenaged paraphernalia: Game Boys, skateboards, headphones, stacks of loose CDs. The horrific messes frustrated me, but my kids taking everything for granted, that disheartened me. The situation resolved — when they moved out.
I can’t wait that long with the second batch. I’m old and basically one apoplectic fit away from a heart attack. I vowed things would be different and set out with two basic tactics: 1) Stay on top of it; get organized and maintain order, and 2) Teach them to be respectful; expect responsibility and reward compliance.
I organized the play room with color-coded tubs on corresponding shelves. I arranged drawers, cabinets and cubbies. I used LABELS. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” I intoned, and for whole hours at a time their rooms looked like a Pottery Barn catalog — such a sweet sensation! But there was no way I could keep up the relentless policing and cajoling and reinforcing. Even with control issues, I was no match for the destructive force of my children. When I let down, even a little, it all went to hell in a hand basket; the little monsters annihilated my beautifully orchestrated design. Their energy was tornadic — toys, games, books and dolls were flung everywhere. And all those tiny pieces — broken crayons, Barbie shoes, key chains, pennies, paper clips, empty wrappers from Halloween candy and crunched-up chips smuggled in and hidden under the bed. The wreckage sent me into my own tailspin.
Prolonging the inevitable, I’d shut the door and walk away. I did not want to see it. Eventually I’d muster the strength and supervise the restoration of order by the demolition crew themselves. And by “supervise” I mean losing patience with their lackluster, apathetic efforts and cleaning it all up myself as they stood by, repentant and cowed into silence by my ranting.
“Look at all this stuff! It’s too much. Seriously, if you girls cannot change, you are destined to become hoarders. You’ll live alone!”
This cycle has repeated itself ten-thousand times, but the last time was different. I was different. I had enough.
“That’s IT. I am DONE! I’m NEVER doing this again. The next time you leave your things all over your room, they will BE. GONE. I MEAN it. I’ll come in here with GARBAGE bags!”
They didn’t believe me, but it was no idle threat; I followed through. Well, Steven did. My husband seemed to think I’d back-pedal, so he waited until I was at work to do the deed. I came home to 12 heavy-duty black bags sitting in the garage where I park my car. And an empty play room. Epic in scale, their messes flat wore me out, but it was what those messes said about my kids that truly bothered me. It said they don’t appreciate what they have, that they are used to getting what they want; they’ve certainly gotten anything they’ve ever needed. And they don’t value it or the hard work and money it took to purchase their luxuries. As a parent, it’s a hard truth to face: having more than enough has not made them grateful, it’s made them greedy. And I’m to blame.
When we were in high school, my brother, sister and I lived with our single mother in a double-wide trailer. Parked on farmland in southeastern Idaho, we hunkered down for subzero winters and dug ourselves out of snow that began in October and stayed until April. To fight off the brutal cold, we fed a wood stove throughout the night and burrowed into heated waterbeds. My brother and I drove our one car to school after we dropped off our mom at work. Our clothes came from K-Mart, our furniture from thrift stores and when we worked potato harvest, our wages went to the household rather than in our pockets. I got good at pretending I wasn’t hungry on Friday nights at McDonald’s with my friends.
When I became a mother, I wanted my children to have what I didn’t, but in filling that void, maybe I denied them the opportunity to develop something I did have, in spades: a work ethic and sense of responsibility, an appreciation for material things and what it takes to earn them. Gratitude. Perspective. In hindsight, while they were tough, those experiences made me who I am today.
At Christmas, especially, when the anticipation of presents dominate my young daughters’ thoughts, when the reason for the season is buried under retail consumerism and drowned out by advertisements of aisles and aisles of bright, shiny treats, I grapple with how to adjust their attitudes. I long for them to recognize their bounty and share it freely with those in need. At heart, they’re not selfish. Sydney is so sensitive to other people’s feelings and generous. She has literally tried to give people the shirt off her back — or the iPod in her hand. And Haley, who has a special love for little ones, latches on to anything about sick kids. She filled out a donation slip for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and tucked $15 of her own money inside, asking me to mail it for her. My girls are kind and compassionate; they just need a chance to express it. And I need to lead the way.
Where to start? The world is full of hunger and pain and loss — the need so great. What could we do that would make a difference? The answer is simple: Whatever you can give, give. Whatever you can do, do. Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
In Columbia, you don’t have to look far to find ways to give. Organizations such as The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, Rainbow House, Coyote Hill, True North and Harvest House are among many worthy causes working tirelessly to serve humanity. Technology makes it possible to impact lives globally as well as locally. One mom I know coordinates an annual packing party for Operation Christmas Child, sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. This year, I took the girls. On a Friday night, we gathered to fill shoeboxes with school supplies and hygiene items, socks and hats and flashlights. And toys, of course: dolls, trucks and stuffed animals; things that will surely become prized possessions rather than yet another plaything to be taken for granted. Packing the boxes full, Sydney and Haley topped them off with handwritten letters and their school pictures to add a personal touch and sent them winging their way around the world to be received by children who might not have access to clean water or health care, let alone presents on Christmas Day.
By giving their hearts, my girls realized it’s not about the stuff, and in fact, excessive stuff gets in the way. Material things are not what bring us happiness. Connection, service, love: These are the gifts I want to give my daughters, and the knowledge that they can make a difference themselves, right here at home and across the universe.
So far, it’s sticking. Greed is giving way to benevolence. We’ll keep it up, finding opportunities to reach out. It is far better to give than receive, and they know that now.
The bags containing evidence of their overabundance sat in the garage for a few weeks, giving them plenty of time to think and allowing them to discern what they cherish, what they appreciate and what they can let go of. And in the process, they learned how good it feels to have, not too much, but enough.
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and their two youngest children, one of whom has Down syndrome.