Friday, December 18, 2009


As a third-grader, I was determined to stay awake on Christmas Eve. I was going to finally catch a glimpse of Santa Claus as he landed his sleigh lightly on the roof and wriggled down our chimney to bring presents. My father heard the jingle of sleigh bells every Christmas Eve and teased me, year after year, because I always fell asleep too early to hear them.

On the last school day before Christmas vacation, my mother picked me up from school in the car. I needed to ask her something privately, while just the two of us were together—so the drive home was the perfect setting. Linda, the class bully at our all girls’ school, had taunted me in front of our classmates and called me a baby because I believed in Santa. I had retorted angrily that my father knew more than she did, and if he said Santa was real (and he did!), then Santa was real.

I was sure I knew the answer to the question for my mother, but I needed to ask . . . just in case. “Linda said everyone knows their parents are really Santa Claus. I told her she was wrong! You and Daddy are not Santa Claus . . . are you?”

Mother’s answer stunned me. "Yes, honey, we are."

At first, I thought she might be joking, but she was not smiling. When I actually absorbed her short, one-word answer, I felt the same way I did when a dog had knocked the wind out of me the summer before. I felt as if I were about to die. Santa not real? If I had been old enough to think in similes, I would have described myself as cracking all over like flower pots did when the wind blew them off our deck onto the driveway below. Christmas without Santa’s magic? I cried in the car. I had already let go of tooth fairies, talking scarecrows, and mermaids. Now the last crumbs of my make-believe world were brushed away forever.

My mother gently reminded me I was too big to cry about something designed for little children. “I should have told you earlier,” she said. “I was worried something like this would happen.” I moped around the house for the rest of the day and cried myself to sleep that night. Christmas would never be the same.

Fifteen years later when I became a mother myself, it was with great ambivalence that I introduced the fat-elf mythology for our firstborn, Andrea. I knew other mothers who—determined never to lie to their children—had eliminated Santa Claus entirely from their newly formed families. Yet, as a child, I had loved the idea of Santa Claus so much I couldn’t bear to ban him completely from my new family traditions. I decided a little bit wouldn’t hurt, rationalizing I’d been just too old when I discovered the truth. I’ll level with Andrea before she gets too old, too attached to Santa, I told myself. Then three more babies arrived—Matthew, Philip, Peter—and Santa was as real and as imbedded in our family as if he were a distant cousin who visited once a year.

Santa consistently arrived unseen, late in the night on Christmas Eve, bringing gifts, fulfilling wishes, and creating joy. I consciously referred to him as the spirit of love when I talked about him, but we partook of all the lore—his team of flying reindeer, his hideaway workshop staffed by elves, his ability to scoot down millions of chimneys in one short night. Andrea, Matt, Phil, and Pete each mailed a letter or a wish list to the North Pole soon after Thanksgiving. Even the process of writing those letters became a beloved tradition among my children.

As the spirit of love, sometimes Santa was a stand-in disciplinarian, too, answering fake phone calls to the North Pole I made, at least once, each December. I’d dial a number (usually the recorded weather report) after announcing to rambunctious children that Santa would appreciate having an update on their behavior. “Santa? This is Mrs. Glerum in Seattle [and later, Wauwatosa]. I thought you might want to know that my children are verging on being too naughty to get presents this year.” Four little mouths would be instantly silenced; four pairs of eyes on the phone, four sets of ears straining to hear the one-sided dialog. For the rest of the day, four well-behaved, docile children would play politely until bedtime.

Nine years ticked away, and all four children were still believers. A week before Christmas, Andrea came bursting through the kitchen door—rosy cheeked, still breathing steam from having been out in the cold winter air. “Mommy, I have to know this. You have to tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus, or not? Is he pretend or real?”

The moment had come at last—the dreaded moment I had anticipated for so many years—the question that must be reckoned with. I felt a lurch in my stomach reminiscent of the one I’d felt inside my mother’s car almost twenty-five years earlier. “Let’s talk in the bedroom where we can close the door,” I answered. Even though the boys were all playing in the basement with their Tonka Trucks, I didn’t want to run the risk they’d overhear me. Once in the bedroom, I took a big breath and started the speech I’d been rehearsing for three years.

“You know how I’ve always told you Santa is the spirit of love?” Andrea nodded. “Well, Santa Claus is the symbol of the love who makes Christmas so wonderful. As Christians, we celebrate Christmas because we believe the arrival of Jesus in the world was the most magnificent gift imaginable from God. Love is real, right?” A solemn nine-year-old nodded in agreement. “We can feel love, can’t we?” Another nod. “Well, Santa Claus ‘personifies’ love (here I stopped to explain the word personify—using the example of Jack Frost as a pretend creator of a natural phenomenon), so wherever he is, we are reminded of love . . . and he is a perfect symbol for unselfish giving. But no, Andrea, Santa is not a real, walking-around elf. He’s a pretend elf.”

Andrea had sat absolutely still, taking in every word, studying my face as I talked. She broke into a wide toothy smile when I was done talking. “You mean?” she began . . . then started to laugh. “You mean that all those Santa presents came from you and Daddy? My doll? My bike? My watch? All those things came from you and Daddy?”

“Yes, everything.”

“And you just gave me and the boys our Santa presents all those years . . . and never expected a thank you? You just put them under the tree from Santa?” She was smiling so hard she could barely get out the words.

“That’s right.”

“And you just watched us open them, and we didn’t have to say thank you?”

I nodded.

“Oh, Mommy, that’s better than I thought. That is love. Thank you, Mommy—thank you now for all those presents,” and she threw her arms around me and squeezed a big, warm, tight hug.

When our hug was over, I asked, “Do you think the boys still believe in Santa?”

“For sure Pete and Phil do—and maybe Matt. But don’t worry, I won’t tell them—I love having this secret.” She hugged me again and ran out of the room to find the boys to see if her doll could ride in the back of one of their Tonka trucks.

My eyes welled up; relief and joy momentarily overwhelmed me.
© 2009 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009


Anonymous said...

Good story. I remember those conversations - three times with my children and once when mom and dad broke the news to me. But I envy my brother - I think he's still a believer.

Joe Lutzel

anna said...

Aunt Sallie...this was so sweet...and also personfies Andrea's everlasting humor and positive outlook. I enjoyed it very much and will take note for when we get the question.

Dave and Barb said...

One of my most favorite Christmas's was 1972 when I was Santa for Andrea, Matt, Phil and Peter (and Sally and Jay). I'm glad we can all, aldults and children alike, still believe in Santa. Merry Christmas!