The Spirit of Santa
This essay appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul's The Joy of Christmas
The opulence of the setting took my breath away. Long tables, draped in ivory and gold filled a room lit by the light of a hundred candles. Diaphanous ribbon wove through glistening golden ornaments while white sculptured reindeer and soft golden angels stared down from every wall. The smell of turkey and pumpkin pie filled the air as a huge fire crackled in the fireplace. Ah, Christmas Eve.
I smiled at the irony of the situation. Three different projects had failed that year and we were careening quickly towards bankruptcy that we would realize by summer. I’d miscarried another beloved baby and was still deeply mourning. Our own dinner the following night would be a turkey roll from Walmart.
And the saddest part of all was that I’d had to explain to Matthew, Mary and Katie that Santa would not be coming to our house that year.
At eight, six and three, they were unfazed regardless of my warnings. “Don’t worry, Mama,” they’d assured me. “Santa would never forget us.”
He hadn’t. But, the warm pajamas and single book I’d bought each child would not compare to the menagerie of treasures they were used to.
So it was that, when my friend invited us to dinner and a visit from Santa at her house, I was grateful for the invitation. I’d told the kids that a personal visit from Santa was worth far more than presents and that they were the lucky ones of all the kids in the world. And since I knew Santa would provide each child with a small gift, I felt that it would somehow make up for the emptiness they would find under the tree in the morning.
Dinner did not disappoint. Good food, fine wine, and the companionship of people with open hearts and deep souls fed me to the core of my being. My friend and her husband were ever-present, attentive hosts. And, when Santa came, even I was fooled.
No store-bought imposter here. His white beard, cherry nose, and round belly were all home grown. His Santa suit was clearly the magnificent handiwork of the loving and kind Mrs. Santa who stood by his side looking every bit like the lady in the story books. But, his eyes—Santa’s eyes were a dead give away because that twinkle came from his pure, loving soul and radiated clear around the room. Indeed, this was really Santa.
Eight-year-old Matthew took one look and ran to hide in the bedroom. Six-year-old Mary, on the other hand, leapt into his arms. And the jolly old elf caught her with an open belly laugh that assured her she was right where she belonged. “Oh, Santa, it’s you!” she cooed as she gently stroked his beard.
But, despite the wonder and joy of the moment, I could not hide my sorrow at our plight. This should be a time of joy for my children, and all I could think of was what was lacking. Before lap time, I tried to get Santa aside to explain our situation. I didn’t want him to make promises I couldn’t keep.
But, I never got the chance to talk to him and as Matthew sat reciting his list (and I stood behind making frantic gestures) Santa promised and promised and promised, then left to “begin his evening rounds.”
My heart sank. The promise was made, and I couldn’t fulfill it or have Santa change it. It was all I could do not to burst into tears. For there I stood, in the middle of such beauty and abundance feeling absolutely impoverished in body and soul.
Soon, we said our good-byes and piled into the car for the five minute ride home through the snowy streets of Idyllwild.
I began to prepare the kids for tomorrow’s let-down when the DJ on the radio announced that Santa had been spotted over our town.
Mary clapped her hands and squealed into the sky as she searched for her new friend and I silently wondered what kind of cosmic joke would not allow me to protect my children from what, I knew, was going to be one of the biggest disappointments of their young lives.
But as Mary cheered, Matthew cried, “Oh no, oh no, OH NO!”
“Honey, what’s wrong?” we asked.
“Of course, he’s here. He started here. And I’m not asleep!” Matthew began ripping at his clip-on tie as he wiggled out of his shoes.
“It’s okay. He knew you were at the party,” I consoled.
“No. He told me to be good and go to bed tonight. I’m up. I’m being bad! He’ll never come!”
“But, remember,” I said, seizing my chance. “You got to see him tonight, and he gave you your truck. He won’t be able to come to your house too; he has so many other children to see tonight.”
“Don’t be silly, Mommy,” laughed Mary in the midst of all the chaos. “Santa will come. You’ll see.”
“But, Honey…” I began as we pulled into the driveway, determined to blunt the blow this dear child was about to endure. And then…there it was.
“Look kids,” Steven pointed to the deck by the front door. “What is that?”
“Santa!” they yelled.
And it was. For there, on the deck, was Christmas. A big red sled sat by the front door. Propped up inside were trucks and telescopes, Barbies and plushies, mittens and scarves and books…and magic. For the second time that night, a scene had taken my breath away.
There, in the cold and snow, we knelt down to explore the miracle. Tears flowed down my cheeks as my babies shrieked and giggled at the wonder of the night. Clearly “Santa” knew my kids and had brought them each a special, personalized treasure.
After examining his presents, normally shy, Matthew, who had been too afraid to occupy the same room as Santa at the party, ran out into the middle of the yard, lifted his chin and hands to the sky and yelled, “Thank you Santa Claus. I love you.”
The next morning, when the tree held warm jammies and a single book, the kids were thrilled that Santa had visited them THREE TIMES IN ONE NIGHT. They declared it the best Christmas ever.
A decade and a half later, it is still our favorite Christmas. Although we have our suspicions, we have never discovered the true identity of Santa. And, maybe, it’s best we never know.
To this day, Mary still believes in that jolly old fat man.
Several years ago, I became worried about this eccentric girl’s grip on reality and tried to reason with her.
“Mary, you know Santa’s just a wonderful fantasy.”
“No, he’s not,” insisted my teen, “I know him. I saw him. Remember that year?”
“But Honey, you do know that was just good friends taking care of us.”
“And, your point?”
“My point is: it wasn’t really Santa. It wasn’t real.”
“But, that’s where you’re wrong, Mom. It’s the only thing that IS real.”
“Yes, Mom. That was Santa. That was Santa’s spirit working there. Look around. Soup kitchens? Santa. Toy drives? Santa. That spirit of giving—that IS Santa. Okay, call it Jesus, or Buddha, or Mohammad, or universal peace. Or, call it Santa’s spirit. It’s there. And, no one will ever convince me that it’s not real.”
She’s right. It is real.
That kind act, so many years ago, fundamentally changed my children. It was a lesson in faith, and simple joys, and sharing. It was a gift that our family now “pays forward” every year to another family.
But, it did more. There, on that dark night of my soul, it taught me about humanity’s goodness. It reminded me that there is always hope. And, it wrapped me in the warmth of knowing that I was loved—not just by some kind-hearted friend—but by a God who always made sure my falls were cushioned and that my prayers were answered. Maybe it was only a few gifts tucked into a sled. But for me, it was the truth of the world. It was the spirit of Santa. And, it changed me forever.