The Christmas my son, Peter, my first child, turned three was, of course, the first time he was old enough to make sense out of the Santa story. And being the child he was, Peter made too much sense out of it.
“Mommy,” he said to me when I came into his bedroom on Christmas morning, “did Santa Claus really tiptoe into my room and put those things in my stocking”—having no fireplace in our Texas home, I had hung his stocking on the end of his bed—“or did you do it?”
I seem to be incapable—unfortunately, in this case—of telling a direct lie, especially to a child. And so I admitted that I had done it, and then I spun a story about Santa Claus as the spirit of giving, etc., etc., none of which interested him in the least. He had the information he’d asked for. Mommy had filled his stocking.
So when his younger sister, Beth-Alison, grew old enough to comprehend the Santa story, she had her big brother close at hand, delighted to let her know that it was all a big game the grown-ups were playing. There was no Santa.
She once told me that was the worst thing I ever did as a parent, depriving her of the brief chance other children have to believe in Santa. I defended myself by saying, “If that’s truly the worst thing I ever did, you’re pretty damned lucky.”
I only wish it were.
But what is it about truth-telling and Santa? If Peter’s question had been less direct, I might have found a way to respond without spoiling the fun. Because the truth of Santa isn’t about who did the tiptoeing. It’s about what the gifts honor.
However close or far we are from the real Christmas story, what is meant to be honored in this season is the victory of love over death.
And that’s a truth we search for, every one of us of every faith or no faith at all, our entire lives.
The Peter who so determinedly and mischievously—he was good at both determination and mischief—spoiled his little sister’s Santa story, died almost eleven years ago. At age 42, he left little behind except his wife and three sons, living proof of his ability to love.
Peter died after a long illness that robbed him inexorably of body and mind, and dying, he went to such an unknowable place that none of us who loved him could follow. Yet if I was unable to truly accompany his death, that three-year-old Christmas morning still lives in me. “Mama, did Santa Claus really . . .”
And so much else lives in me, too. And in his father and his sister. And in my beloved daughter-in-law. And in those three adored grandsons.
Can love conquer death, even if you don’t believe in Santa . . . in more than Santa?
When Peter’s father is gone, when I am gone, too, so much of his Peterness will be gone with us.
And yet I believe in the imperfect love that brought my son into the world.
And I believe in the imperfect love that will live still in those he created, in those he touched.
“Mommy, did Santa really . . . ?”
If I could return to that surprise moment with the perspective of age, I would answer his question differently.
“Yes, my son! Yes! Love tiptoed into your room.”