“So when are we going to see Santa this year? Christmas is only two more weeks, and we haven’t seen him yet!”
Our daughter is ten years old, and normally a question like that around Christmas would be the kind of thing you’d want to grab onto with both hands. For a ten year old to still want to talk to Santa, that’s a pleasant surprise.
By age ten children are definitely starting to understand the world around them; there’s a lot less magic to be found, less awe, and often disappointment tinged with, “Awww…” when they begin to grasp the reality that’s been in front of them all this time.
As parents we look to the child to grow, but at the same time, there’s a part of us that wishes the inevitable changes might slow down, just a bit. It’s an impossible game, of course. The sands pass from the top of each hourglass-phase of their life to the bottom, and when you can see the end of Santa Claus coming into view you’ll do just about any damn thing you can to slow those final grains down.
Of all the times you throw shade towards the truth as a parent, the Christmas gig is by far the biggest act of deception you have going. Think about it – even people without kids are in on it. It’s the only truly Global Conspiracy that has actually worked for centuries; nobody has ever launched a successful campaign to break the story and share the truth with everyone, and had it stick.
If you’re ever wondering about the fundamental truth of human beings, as to whether or not we are good or evil in our core, it’s hard not to think that we must be pretty decent if we’ve managed to keep children around the world playing along with the charade for all this time. If freaking NORAD is in on the game, and has gone so far as to give kids a mobile-device based, real-time Santa Tracker on Christmas Eve? I’d say no matter what you read or hear about human beings, I think there’s still hope for the human race.
When you’re a kid, Christmas is THE thing you just knew was going to be awesome, every year. Part of that was the mystique of the man in the big, red suit, a guy who gets around the world in one night, to everyone, everywhere. It’s magic! It’s Christmas! It’s also, sadly, the thing that many of us will recall, was the first big thing we figured out…was a lie.
I remember when my parents let me in on the whole deal. I knew it – I don’t remember being disappointed at all. It was as-if I’d known it, but just held on believing for that last little bit as a hedge…just in case. The bonus was now I was, “In The Club,” so when we went to bed, I just got to hang out there for about 30 minutes until my sister fell asleep, and then my parents came back upstairs Italian Ninja Style (constantly shushing each other so as not to make any noise), and snuck me down to help put presents under the tree.
With Katie asking to see Santa one more time, we were surprised, but knew that time had to be running out.
In 2006 we first brought an infant Katie to see Santa at the local nursery, Waterloo Gardens. A neighbor had told us about their great Santa, and how you could bring your own camera and spend as much time as you wanted with him. Despite the natural hesitation most children have the first time they see Santa, Katie settled right into his lap. He even waved Lynda and I over for a photo with all of us together, and he asked us, “What do you want for Christmas?” At that time the little lady hadn’t really come to terms with sleep (and wouldn’t do so for another year and a half), so I said, “Any chance for sleep, Santa?”
He chuckled and said, “No, no, not yet. Your present is that you have her.” He was right, of course, but I’m pretty sure I still asked for sleep for the next few years…
Each year we would return to Waterloo Santa. Each year Katie got bigger, and Santa never changed; he stayed the same wonderful, warm, charming, perfect picture of Christmas. Each year he would remember us, and Katie with her stuffed dog “Pupsters” by her side. In 2008 he remarked, “I love watching them grow over the years. I would love to see some of the pictures over time…” I asked him if he’d ever been given a set, and he said, “Come to think of it, no…no.”
The following weekend Katie and I went back, and gave Santa a CD of her years with him. He held it with both hands, looked at her, looked at me, and beamed. “Nobody’s ever done this for me…Thank you so, so much!” As we walked outside, Katie said, “I think we made Santa VERY happy! We’re TOTALLY on the good list now!”
Each year as we came back, he’d see her walking in with Pupsters. Santa would go, “And THERE’S KATIE!” You want to know what it feels like to be a rock star? Imagine being a kid walking in to see Santa, and have him remember you first. Lynda and I would just sit back and watch Katie get enveloped in everything wonderful about the season, swept away in believing it – all of it.
When Waterloo Gardens went out of business, Lynda and I both though the same thing: “Santa. What do we do about SANTA?” She called the General Manager on the final weekend the nursery was going to be open, and asked if she knew where they might be able to find Santa. The General Manager replied, “Did you say your daughter was Katie? With the little stuffed dog? Hang on. He gave me a list of people he wanted to stay in touch with…”
That’s when I learned Santa’s name was Tom Leinbach, and he had an email address. I remember sitting at my computer in October, and weeping openly when I got a letter from Santa.
“You are one of a few people I hoped would contact me. Unfortunately, I was just as surprised as you were about Waterloo closing and I never thought to get your name, address or phone number. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t see Katie any more. I’m hoping that she will be bringing HER kids to see me in 20 years…”
We went and saw Santa twice more at nearby LeBeau Gardens. Each time he greeted her (and Pupsters) by name. Each time she went home absolutely glowing, because there were all the other Santas around…but this one, this was the real Santa. Her belief made us believe. You’ve heard me say it time and time again – this whole parenting thing is just one long improvisational exercise; a never-ending leap from moment to moment where you never stay too high, or too low, for long. To have something this right, this wired, we could ask for no more.
On February 11, 2015, Lynda was sitting in the living room reading her iPad, when I saw her eyes well up with tears. This got my attention immediately, as Lynda is Irish – Irish people don’t DO tears. Tears are totally MY bag as the Italian here. She handed me her iPad, and I read the Facebook posting from LeBeau Gardens…
“We are sad to share the news of the sudden passing of Tom Leinbach, our beloved Santa…”
Santa was gone. I thought about the last set of photos that I’d sent to him in December, and how he’d replied to me one final time.
“I saw a girl tonight that just turned 15. She no longer believes but still wanted to come in for a picture! She said I will always be her special Santa Claus. I hope that Katie stays that way also…”
I spent the Summer and Fall knowing that I had no plan for what we might do at Christmas. Without saying it out loud, I hoped she would figure it out on her own. While I didn’t want to rush the time away – I didn’t WANT to see it end – I just knew that the best option would be the one where we didn’t bring it up, she didn’t ask, and Santa just faded away. Her memories – they had to stay intact, somehow.
Of course, this didn’t happen. As the countdown to Christmas began, she asked about going to see Santa. We said we hadn’t heard where he might be, but we’d keep listening. With each day that she asked (and we bluffed), Lynda and I knew we were approaching a point of no return, getting higher and higher on this cliff with no way to turn back. We had to do something – come up with some plan.
Before we could, Katie took matters into her own hands. One night before bed she wrote a letter to her Elf on the Shelf, asking if when she visited the North Pole at night, she could ask Santa WHY he hadn’t come to visit. She wrote, “Tell Santa I NEED to see him! Seeing is BELIEVING! I NEED TO BELIEVE!”
That night as I sat on my couch, I held her handwritten, desperate scrawl, and read it over, and over. I sat and stared at my laptop for almost an hour, knowing that I had to find the right words – that ten years of Christmas, ten years of Santa, ten years of every magical childhood Christmas memory, would all be lost if we didn’t find a way to stretch time just a little bit longer.
I wrote a reply from the North Pole, delivered by her Elf on the Shelf (who, unlike so many others, isn’t just a Demi-Magical-Orwellian-Narc that spies and causes mayhem – we use ours as a courier for messages from time to time).
I wrote that Santa was busy – busier than he’d ever been, but there were plenty of Santa’s “helpers” all around – the ones you see at Malls, Parades, that sort of thing. The note explained that Katie could head to one of those helpers, and even though it would be a just a helper Santa, she’d know it was for real because Santa would be sure to fill him in on her and Pupsters.
I was able to write all of that because Lynda had gone to the Exton Mall earlier that day, waited in line by herself with all the Moms, Dads, and Kids, and met with Santa. Lynda explained the story of Tom Leinbach, Katie, and Pupsters, and how we just needed one more time – one visit – before time caught up with us, and the hourglass ran out. I didn’t ask her to do it, she just did it, as only a Mom can.
Santa understood. He said, “Come back here tomorrow at 4:30. I’ll make sure I take care of her.”
Lynda and I picked up Katie from school the next day, and told her that we were going to see one of Santa’s helpers. She said, “Sure. Sounds good.” We drove up to the Mall, we walked through the door, and I will tell you that I felt like a Dead Man Walking. None of it felt right. It was a mall. But when you have only one play, it’s easy to commit, really. I knew this was going one of two ways:
1. We save Christmas.
2. We go down in Flames, kid goes into therapy, we’re forever remembered as liars.
As we waited in a very short line, Santa looked up and saw Katie, saw Lynda, and flashed a twinkling smile. He nodded, just a bit, and waved.
Katie took a step towards him, hesitated, then stopped. She froze on the spot, and turned to look back at us. I knew there was nothing we could say or do, other than brace to pick up the pieces of a heart that was clearly about to break into a million of them before our very eyes. Lynda and I stood side by side, as Katie waved to us to come closer, as if she needed to say something, urgently.
“Is that Katie and Pupsters?”
We hadn’t been anywhere near Santa. We hadn’t talked to him. But with that simple question, whatever Katie might have been thinking – whatever doubt had started to knock in the doors in her mind – whatever reality had surrounded her magical, childhood, castle walls, and was about to break it all down – it all departed, instantly. “How could he know me? How could he know Pupsters?” We watched the gears turning – we watched her stand on the edge between doubt and believing – we watched her make her choice.
She pivoted, and walked towards Santa as he smiled and said, “He’s told me all about you both…come, have a seat.”
Lynda and I kept our distance, and exhaled. We exhaled a lot.
As we walked out of the mall she said, “He knew Pupsters. The only way he’d know is if Santa told him. He has to have talked to him!” There wasn’t much sand left in our hourglass, but as I looked at it in my imagination, there was enough left in there to make to at least December 27 or so.
She’s going to find out the truth, someday. She’s probably going to know it sooner, rather than later.
But as we watched her talking to Santa’s helper, her face softening, her stare widening, and her smile glowing, we knew it wouldn’t be this day. We knew she would find her way down from the heights of childhood magic and dreams on her own, gently, as it should be.
Katie will soon be walking down yet another path that every human walks – the route that takes one on their journey from childhood into whatever comes next. It is not something that happens all at once; it’s a series of surrender – surrender of innocence, naiveté, hope – as time takes you from one age, to the next, and the next, and the next. You’re often so busy as a parent that it’s easy to miss them – you find yourself wondering, “How did this time go by so quickly?”
As John Lennon famously wrote, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans…”
This year I was prepared to wave a white flag of surrender. But thanks to some teamwork, some hope, and lots of luck, we turned that white flag one to mark the last lap of this race we’ve been in since the beginning. We’ll get one more time around to put out the cookies and milk by the fireplace, one more time to lead Katie up to bed, reading her stories on Christmas Eve, one more time to believe that it really is all magical, and possible, and real.
May we all find something to believe in this Christmas.S