My kids are growing. Fast. To all the parents out there...were your kids delivered with a warning label? Did it say something like, WARNING!! Don't blink or 10 years will go by. PREPARE yourself for the day you will be fielding questions about sex, sperm donors and being gay...on the way to basketball practice. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY!!! DO NOT cry on the day you have to answer the worst question of all.
"Mommy, is Santa for real?"
I am here for you, parents who have yet to face this. I warn you, it will not be easy. In fact, it is heartbreaking.
It was a regular weekday night. School, dinner, reading and a tuck-in from Mom and Dad. Nothing was amiss. Nothing out of sorts which might have prepared us for such a drastic turn of events. Right as I placed my goodnight kiss on her adorably small, freckled nose, Ella (who is soon to be double-digits) pulled me closer and whispered in my ear, "Mommy, I have to ask you something."
I pulled back and looked her in the eyes. And I just knew. I knew exactly what she was going to ask. And I wasn't ready.
"Is Santa for real?"
Oh, the heartbreak, those words! It's not like she hadn't asked before. Or shared a story of a friend of a friend who didn't believe in Santa. But in all this time, she had never looked at me in that way. In that little girl growing up way. I had promised myself and my kids that I would never lie to them. If they asked me something important. Something that needed an answer. An honest answer. Then that is what I would give them. But not this! Not now!
I stammered something unintelligible. Something very Polar Express, "Oh, you know, honey. If you really believe in Santa, and a bell rings somewhere, then, you know....then he's real? Right?"
My first (and probably only good) suggestion parents - never answer a direct question about Santa with a not-confident, teenage-like question. They are too smart for that and will smell something fishy almost immediately.
"Mommy. I'm serious." Her blue eyes stared at me hard, shrewdly even. There was only one way out of this. I had to stall.
"Oh, honey. Umm. Why are you asking this now? It's so late. Let's get you to bed." She crossed her arms and cocked her head in a very cute, mini-adult Columbo way. This kid was out for the truth.
"Okay, fine. Why don't you sleep on it. If you still want to ask me in the morning...well, then, we'll talk."
Looking extremely unsatisfied but temporarily mollified, Ella kissed me goodnight.
Immediately, I ran upstairs, grabbed Sean, pulled him into our closet, and closed the door. Among our mingled clothes (his, of course, folded and stacked beautifully, as you well know) I hissed, "Ella just asked me if Santa was for real. Like, for real, for real."
Apparently I revert to teenage speak when faced with huge life questions.
"What did you say?" he asked.
"Nothing, yet. I told her to sleep on it and ask us in the morning if she still wanted to."
"Do you really want to tell her in the morning right before she goes to school?"
My husband is wise, so wise. (And also, like, so totally hot.) He was right. We had to tell her now so she could go to bed freshly devastated and betrayed. Then wake up and go to school feeling the same way, but more in a PTSD kind of way. This was brilliant. And we were ready. Holding hands, we called Ella up to our room. Together, the three of us sat on the bed. She, looking at us expectantly. Us, with pre-formed tears already welling in our eyes.
At this point, you might think we were taking this all a bit too seriously. But how could we not? Our family memories abound with Christmas mornings. The magic of watching little faces light up as they run down the stairs, shouting in glee at the presents awaiting them. The innocent conviction that an overweight old guy crept in through the chimney to leave Target-brand presents under the tree. Their absolute assurance that Bacon, our tiny, red-cheeked, slightly effeminate Elf-on-the-shelf will fly back to the North Pole every night with a stellar behavior report.
And now we were about to ruin it all. To dissolve the magic of the season. To be the man behind the curtain. We were Morpheus about to shatter her world.
"So, Ella." I start.
"Yes, so, Ella." Sean helpfully adds.
Wringing my hands, I try again. "Okay, so you really want to know if Santa is for real?"
Blond hair swings rapidly as she shakes her head yes.
"Okay, you are about to become part of the inner circle."
(Side note: She is too young to have seen Meet the Parents, so not a word about how I ripped off major lines from that movie. She. Will. Never. Remember.)
"For years, the inner circle has only consisted of Mommy and Daddy. But tonight, Ella, you are about to join this very exclusive, very special circle. This is a big deal because it means that you are growing up."
I take a deep breath.
"You asked us if Santa is real....well, he is, uh, not. Not real. What is real is that Christmas is about love and the beautiful gift that God gave to our world."
I feel pretty confident that this is going well. But then I see that tears are starting to form in Ella's eyes, her chin is trembling and her face is going red from her efforts not to cry.
"Santa is not real?" She asks as tears stream down her face.
Well, crap! Did I jump the gun? Hadn't I done my due diligence with all my very obvious questions of "Do you actually want to know?!?" Is honesty actually not the best policy?
"No, baby, he's not. Well, actually, Santa is more like a symbol for lots of people. People who love you and want to share something fun, and magical and special with you."
"Like you and Daddy?"
"Yes, like me and Daddy, and your grandparents and aunts and uncles."
And then she began to cry for real. Real tears, real sobbing as the world as she knew it shifted. I look at Sean who cannot speak. Sean who with the giddiness of a child moves furniture every Christmas Eve to make way for the Santa gifts. Sean who booby traps the hallway so the kids won't sneak up on us playing Santa. As he watches the one bit of magic gifted to children slip out of Ella's life, he struggles to maintain his own composure.
It's hard watching our kids grow up.
We hug and hold her until the sobbing subsides. Our hearts in pieces. Finally, she takes a deep breath and asks, "Hold on, does that mean Bacon is not real either?"
"Bacon is not real either," I say.
"YOU move him every night? But he wrote notes back to me! That was YOU!"
With that, another round of sobbing ensues. Santa was one thing. She's never actually met him. But Bacon? The Elf who lives with us all during the season, hiding out, being funny and impish, writing hilarious notes? That was one truth too many.
Bit by bit, as the reality settles in, her world begins to open up to all the possibilities. Like, what's it like to play Santa, and did we love hiding Bacon, and wait a minute, does this mean the Easter Bunny isn't real either?
"Can I help hide Bacon next year?"
"You bet, honey. It will be so much fun to have you playing along with Daddy and me. Just remember, you have to keep this to yourself. Let your brother and sister enjoy it for as long as you have."
She heaves a huge sigh, rolls her eyes at me and says in a hold-on-to-your-hat-because-I-will-be-a-teenager-soon kinda way, "Mom, of course I will keep it to myself. But I do have one question. All those Santa presents were from you and Dad?" I nod yes. With a worried look, she whispers, "Do you even have any money left?"
And that is how Santa got out of town. In a matter of minutes it was all over. I knew it was a done deal when just a few days later Ella pulls me aside so we can have an "adult" talk as she called it.
"Sooo, my ski goggles that were in my stocking? You gave those to me, right? And those jammies? Those were from you, not Santa, right?"
I pull her to me and hug her tight. Maybe this will take a bit longer than we first thought to sink in. "Oh, sweet baby girl, yes, we gave you all those things. Because Santa isn't real, remember? I'm so sorry, honey."
She wiggles out of my loving and supportive hug, puts her hands on my arms and with the keenness of an older kid, says, "That is soo great! Because the goggles are too tight and the jammies are too short. This means we can return them, right? Where did you get them? Target?"