The Christ Child inspires children of all ages to keep the faith; good ol’ St. Nick is another story
By George Valadie
When did it happen to you?
I remember as if it were yesterday.
I know the place and the time, who was there and who was not.
The “it” to which I refer is …when did you learn the cold, hard realities of life about Santa Claus, his reindeer, and all the little toy-making North Pole elves?
I wasn’t there when you heard, but I can probably narrow it down. Odds are good the news came from the mean old neighbor kid. Possibly it was playground chatter that did in your dreams. Or you may have found things for which you should have never been looking—and thus discovered the truth that was wrapped inside.
Or maybe you just asked?
It was a far different era then, but I made it until I was 12 years old. Honestly, I would have liked to have gone longer.
We had arrived home, late one Christmas Eve, having come from our annual family celebration with my cousins’ family. My three younger sisters and I were upstairs hurrying to prepare for bed with our parents doing the bulk of the hurrying.
Kay, a year younger than I, and the Grinch of this story, happened to be in my room with Mom and Dad when she just popped the question.
I sure didn’t know she was going to ask. We hadn’t whispered about it. We hadn’t wondered about it—I mean not out loud anyway. We hadn’t made a plan to catch them alone. She just went and blurted it out, catching me as much by surprise as I’m sure it did my mom and dad.
But like the proverbial moment that freezes in time—I recall wishing she hadn’t. I must have somehow known or certainly at least sensed what the answer was to be because I also recall wishing I could have popped out of the room before the answer popped out of their mouths.
I don’t blame them; they said what they knew it was time to say.
No matter how it happened to any of us—didn’t it always feel as if the air had been let out of something big? I remember hating the truth, at least that one. And I remember a Christmas that didn’t seem nearly as much fun.
Years later, Nancy and I had three girls of our own. Two a bit older, with Sarah the youngest having trailed along some six years behind.
I don’t recall how old they were when they came seeking the facts of holiday life, but sadly, I know neither of them made it until they were 12.
It seems they had been asking every year. And every year we lied, giving our annual reply that cared nothing about the truth. We wanted them to hold on as long as they possibly could. Maybe more than even they wanted to.
We had the perfect and logical reply.
“Honey, does Santa bring you a lot of nice things?”
“And a big stocking full of stuff?”
“And does he bring nice things to all three of you?”
“Now, you know us honey, do you think Mom and Dad could ever afford to buy all those things?”
“You’re right. Never mind.”
Eventually, it was just time. I’ll admit I’d been dreading the Santa Claus conversation more than the one I would someday need to have about sex and babies and momma’s tummy.
The first one killed them; the second one just killed me.
In the true spirit of Christmas, we bribed them. “Now listen, as long as Sarah keeps believing, it only makes sense that Santa Claus will visit all three of our children. So it’s to your advantage to keep the dream alive for her. Get it?”
“Got it.” And did they ever!
Sarah never had to ask. Turns out she was rooting around our bedroom one day and the truth jumped out at her. She never told; she never let on. She said she pretended not to know because she knew she’d been guilty of looking, finding—and knowing.
She also remembers being 10 years old. “I made it longer than most,” she recalls.
Perhaps the hardest thing for parents all of us—is not the keeping of a meaningless secret. Rather, the challenge of parenthood is to help them make some meaningful sense of how the elves and the shepherds, Kris Kringle, and the Baby Jesus can somehow all coexist, each in their proper proportion.
We hope they can appreciate the difference between the myth of the fantasy and the reality of the Savior. We need them to know how the magical differs from the miraculous. And we want them to celebrate both as they should be.
In fact, who doesn’t need a reminder of what’s what?
One is for fun and one is forever.
But there’s so much more to that stocking full of truth than the one simple answer to the one simple question.
It’s why we help them as long as we can … as long as we did. Gone in a single swoosh were all the other fairy tales that helped make childhood so childlike.
The wide eyes and joyful grins—we really miss that part of our kids’ lives.
We miss that part of ours, too.
Dear God—We know who’s real, who’s important, who matters. We do. We jumble it up a lot, and we surely must make you wonder. So thank you for coming anyway. Amen.
George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.