Christmas 2001 was by far the toughest when it came to answering Santa's mail.
Thousands of emails to Santa poured into My Merry Christmas.com by kids and adults concerned over the events of 9/11. But no letter touch me so thoroughly as the letter received from the little boy who lost his mother in the World Trade Center.
"My mom died on September 11, 2001", Brandon stated in his letter. "All I want for Christmas is to get her back. Why did she have to die in the building, Santa?"
I consulted a few folks on that one. Santa gets letters of a personal nature all the time. But how do you deal with a broken heart in one so young? What can be said? How can you possibly help?
It made me think of my own children, of course. If they were to lose me or their mother -- were there actually words from a stranger that would help?
I was convinced it could be done. I was convinced should be attempted. And I was terrified to even try.
Fortunately, the boy's submission came from his father's email address. In working as Santa online there are some advantages that you might have over those Santas who have a sad child on their lap. In this case, it was an email address of a parent. I wrote to the boy's father my expression both my sympathy and concern. And I asked how Santa could help.
For many weeks after I sent the email I heard nothing. I started to wonder if I had made a mistake. But then one day shortly after Thanksgiving I received a very gracious note. Brandon was doing well but still missed his mom. He wrote to Santa only because writing to Santa was a tradition started by his mother as soon as Brandon could pick up a pencil. Brandon's father told me that he had every letter to Santa that Brandon and his mother had ever written together. The email Brandon sent to Santa was a continuation of that tradition he was not expecting.
He told me that Brandon didn't expect a response from Santa Claus because he had never had one before. After thinking about it for some time, Brandon's father decided to contact me to discuss Santa's reply in this special circumstance.
Together we drafted a letter for Brandon's stocking. Over a series of phone calls and through many emails, I made a friend with Brandon's father. And though I never got to see Brandon's face on Christmas morning when he read the letter Santa had left for him in his stocking I lived that moment through his father. To this day Santa receives Brandon's emails. And out of the thousands we receive every year, Brandon's is always one we look for. We want to make sure Santa's archive of letters continues to grow for Brandon and his siblings.
Brandon's story inspired us to expand the character of Elf Ed Zachary -- a columnist for the North Pole Gazette known for his superior, albeit-sometimes-snotty-attitude when it comes to answering some of the lighter hearted letters to Santa. For the website, we decided to give Elf Ed Zachary a shot at answering Brandon's letter publicly -- with his father's permission, of course.
This article by Elf Ed Zachary never fails to generate email every holiday season.
Elf Ed is still his wry self in his response. But he sheds light, as he always does, on the proper perspective of Santa as a human being.
Tough letters come in every year. And behind them are real blessings for those of us charged with answering them.
Christmas 1995 was another stellar event in our home.
Aubree was nine years old that Christmas and getting a little long in the tooth to be holding a belief in Santa. Many of the adults in her life openly questioned whether or not we had gone too far or too long in bringing Aubree to the complete truth. They just didn’t know any other kid that age who still believed in Santa Claus. To them, it was normal for a kid to just request money for Christmas or to celebrate the season by giving Mom a shopping list. Santa was made for three-year-olds. Nine-year-old kids were expected to be a little more street savvy and to all it seemed I was holding her back from this natural progression. Aubree at that point was still very much involved with sugarplums -- and her peers were far beyond that.
I personally didn’t want to see Aubree leave that stage. Sandy and I discussed it at length. She worried about Aubree being teased by other kids and I worried that Aubree would just stop her world of creative imagination because Santa Claus wasn’t all I had made him out to be. At least not to the world at large who scoffed at the idea of Santa Claus.
Aubree was feeling the pressure too.
At school she only mentioned Santa to trusted friends. She had learned by sad experience that mockery followed her love for the season. So she kept it more to herself, sharing her feelings only when others discovered that she was the inspiration behind My Merry Christmas. In the privacy of our home, Aubree participated with all the enthusiasm as she had before. But in front of others she explained that she was helping her baby sister to have a Merry Christmas.
As the season again approached Aubree and I made plans to see a new movie by Disney titled The Santa Clause. On the way to the theater, Aubree told me that maybe the time had come for her to think of Santa Claus “another way”.
I knew what she meant. She was telling me, as best as she could without hurting my feelings, that Santa wasn’t real.
I felt bad enough about it that I sensed that maybe the time had come. I think if I had Sandy with me that day I likely would have told Aubree right there about the reality of Santa Claus. But Aubree stopped short of completely asking and I stopped short of telling her. We just went to the movie.
Then -- another miracle in our family's history of Christmas happened.
As the movie unfolded a character named Bernard was introduced. Aubree shot straight up in her chair. “Bernard” in her world was the name of the elf in charge of the workshop, at least according to the Update from the North Pole that she had received since our first Christmas as a family.
“Dad!” she said aloud, not caring that anyone in the theater could hear us. “That’s him! That’s Bernard!”
I swear I heard angels singing.
It was as if the confirmation she was seeking was finally given to her. Here was proof that did not come off of Dad’s fax machine. Here was confirmation that everything she had been told by Ernest was on the up-and-up. She didn’t need to cave to the pressures of her nine-year-old society. Santa was real, Bernard was real and Christmas would forever happen because the big screen had confirmed it.
I knew right there that I had Aubree for at least another season.
But the experience made clear that I needed to prepare for the time when Aubree wanted to talk about the conflict I had imposed upon her. She knew Santa was important to me. She didn’t want to openly doubt it. Expressing doubt in her child-like heart would somehow be an expression of a lack of confidence in me. And no child wants to do that to a parent.
But Aubree also knew she could not continue to believe in something the world around her so openly mocked and identified as childish. The questions were forming and it was plain to us both that we would soon have to face them.
Poor Aubree. She has always been my guinea pig. Everything as a parent that I do I test out on her. I saw this confrontation coming and I knew there was only one thing to do. Even if it meant hurting her feelings I knew that if Aubree asked me for the straight truth I had to tell her.
It happened the following spring.
We were sitting at the kitchen table, sharing a laugh at the expense of my two-year-old daughter, Abby. Abby was dancing with an Easter basket on her head. I made a joke about the Easter Bunny and Aubree shot me a look.
While I was big on Santa Claus, I wasn’t very keen about the Easter Bunny. In our house, Easter is a strictly religious observance. Since we could never make a correlation between the Easter Bunny and the meaning of Easter, we never really tried with the kids. The grandparents would bring over Easter baskets and sometimes around the holiday we would color eggs and have an Easter egg hunt. But we have always tried to keep Easter Day strictly about Jesus and never made an attempt to connect the two.
“You mean the Easter Bunny is coming this year – Santa?” Aubree questioned. Things got very quiet, very fast. The moment was upon us.
“No, Aubree.” I said. “The Easter Bunny will stay in his rabbit hole again.”
Aubree looked me right in the eye. Suddenly her face turned soft. Everything in her eyes told me she really needed to settle the question.
“Are you Santa, Dad?”
There it was in plain English. I had to come clean.
“Yes, Aubree. I am your Santa.”
I thought it would break my heart to speak such cold reality to her. But I found myself experiencing the warm confirmation that I was doing the right thing. It relieved me to hear her ask the question and it relieved me to be so candid. Amazingly, there was almost no reaction written on her face. There was just a knowing smile. Like she now possessed biggest secret in the world.
“It’s okay, Dad.” she simply said. “I’ve kind of known for a long time. Will we still get the updates this year?”
And that was it. Everything was exactly the same and everything was different – all at the same time.
I had been told for years by critics both private and public that I was betraying a trust with my daughter by not being truthful with her. I was told that I was building up resentment because I was forcing a belief she simply could not reconcile with her reality.
I was told again and again what a damaging thing it was to lead a child on in the belief of Santa Claus. And yet, when our moment came, Aubree moved from one stage to the next in the blink of an eye.
It was okay!
There was no bitterness and there never has been. There were no wagging fingers this time. Only a sweet little look on her face and a twinkle in her eye showed me that anything had changed. Could it be that she realized the goodness of Santa Claus even if he wasn't real?
When Christmas rolled around that year Aubree continued to amaze me. As the big sister, she led her siblings in celebrating the season. As the eldest daughter, she stepped up to help “manage” Santa Claus in our home. As email would pour in as it usually did off the web site, Aubree was there to help. I would share with her what kids would write to Santa. She would contribute with her opinions about what Elf Ernest would say or how Santa would handle the situation.
“Ernest has never explained why we put bows on presents, Dad.” Aubree would observe. “I think we should have an update about that.”
I learned that Aubree was beginning to see Santa Claus the same way that I do.
Santa is simply a good guy. He is a man with a profound belief in Jesus Christ and he picks Christmas as his time to shine at his very best. He gives of himself, he is kind and happy, and most of all, he looks after the happiness and well being of children and families. He is a doer and a teacher. He possesses a positive energy. He works anonymously and gives unconditionally. He is someone to admire and to emulate in our own giving each season. To Aubree, Santa is most certainly not a salesman. He is not an ATM-like machine that merely gives presents to demanding kids. He does not threaten kids for poor behavior. Aubree's Santa is a hero.
For me, coming clean about Santa was a momentous step in my growth as a parent. It taught me a valuable lesson about communicating with my children. For years I had been publicly criticized for not sitting down with my child and eyeballing her while telling her Santa Claus was imaginary. To do so was cruel in my view. Instinctively I could feel the struggle Aubree was feeling and I ached for her. But I also knew that I could not just throw cold water on her. I saw the wheels there cranking. But everything inside told me to hold on -- to wait until she asked.
For whatever reason, though her thoughts were plain to see, it seemed wisdom to me to allow her to process her feelings without actually voicing them to me. I needed to allow that to continue until she was willing to confront me about it.
I struggled with that thought for some time. Was I damaging her? Would she resent me for leading her on? Was encouraging belief in a benevolent though imaginary figure damaging? That suggestion merely encouraged me to prolong coming out with it. While many accused me of perpetuating a lie I never viewed it as such because Santa Claus was such an excellent teacher to Aubree.
I saw her grow as a result of her belief in him. In my heart it was never my intent to lie to her. My intent was to teach her through the goodness of the imaginary creature of Santa Claus. But I was no fool. Just as I see nothing wrong in allowing your kids to extend their belief in Santa Claus I see nothing wrong in telling them the truth when they are ready. In my estimation, Aubree was not ready until she asked.
For her sister Abby the truth was something she demanded at a much earlier age than Aubree. Abby was only six. But, like her big sister, Abby has continued to love the idea of Santa Claus and to participate in our fun with him surrounding every season.
Every parent worries about the maturing process of their children. As they grow older and begin to put away childish things, we hope they are prepared to see the significance of key events like Christmas in their lives. We look for signs in our kids -- some sort of confirmation that all the little lessons taught over the years add up to the big understanding we hope lessons like Christmas provide.
I knew it years later when Aubree was much older. We were working one cold November night putting up Christmas lights. As we discussed our plans for the season together she looked me straight in the eye and told me how much Christmas meant to her. It was, perhaps, the best Christmas present she could have ever given to me. Aubree said she loved Christmas because it meant we were together, at our happiest and doing so many good things that mattered. She told me there was no better way to celebrate her belief in Jesus Christ.
My eyes misted over as I fumbled with the lights. She got it. It was a thrill to hear it from her so spontaneously. I hit my knees that night with gratitude I had never known as a man or as a parent. The credit is entirely hers because she possesses an outstanding mind and a humble heart. She always has.
Aubree is an adult now. Before long, she will have children of her own. But she is well prepared. She is the eldest of seven children altogether. She has been the leader of Christmas observance in our home and to this day she still hangs the map and tapes the yarn to the map to track Santa on Christmas Eve. She has shown all of our kids the wonder and excitement that is Christmas.
But that should come as no surprise. The name "Aubree" after all means "ruler of elves".
You could look it up.
It began all by accident.
When I married back in 1991 my bride had a five-year-old daughter -- a bonus! I was thrilled. Being a father was my life-long ambition and here I had acheived it instantly just by marrying the woman of my dreams. Little did I know then the challenges and true rewards of parenting.
The first thing my little Aubree did was challenge me about how we, as a new family, would spend Christmas.
The kid had Christmas all wrong. In her vast worldly experience of just five years she had learned Christmas to be a time where folks gathered at Grandmother's house on Christmas Eve and celebrated together with food, music and presents. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just know it differently -- I know it BETTER.
I grew up in a home where Christmas was grandly celebrated. Yes, we had the gathering and the food and the presents and the music. But there was an order to it and nothing was more important than getting to bed on Christmas Eve so that Santa could come!
When I mentioned this to my new daughter Aubree merely wrinkled her nose at me in scorn and asked: "Dad, what does Santa have to do with Christmas?"
Well, there it was: my first real challenge as a parent. Leave it to me to end up with a brainy child who was a NON-BELIEVER. Leave it to me to have the only five year old in the entire world who didn't have a love and appreciation for the Big Guy.
It wasn't her fault, of course. But it was my challenge to overcome.
For months we wrestled with the issue. She wanted Christmas as she had always known it -- at grandmother's house with all the traditional fixings. I wanted it as I had always known it. I wanted Christmas as it should be.
Finally, as head of the home and knowing that what we decided would eventually decide Christmas tradition for decades to come for our as yet unborn children (we have seven kids), I put my foot down. For me and my house, we would celebrate Christmas Eve at home as a family. We would hang our stockings. We would wait for Santa Claus. And we would get to Grandmother's on Christmas Day.
Aubree, to her credit, was accepting. After all, Daddy could be pretty stern when he had to. But he also could compromise. And I had a whale of a deal for her:
Some time before Thanksgiving I heard from a good friend of mine by the name of Ernest. Ernest is in PR. Ernest, you see, is an Elf. Ernest suggested that together we work on Aubree and that if we tried hard she would, as five year olds go, become a believer in no time.
He proposed that I reason with the child. He said that if Aubree would send him, an elf, a list of questions about Christmas and Santa Claus that he, an elf, would answer them. So, using the magic of the technology we possessed at the time -- namely, a fax machine in my home office -- Elf Ernest introduced himself and offered Aubree a chance to converse personally with him, Elf Ernest, Santa's Vice President of Public Relations and Chief Goodwill Ambassador.
"Dad," Aubree said, "is this for real?" Man, she was a hard sell.
"Of course, it's for real." I said. "What can it hurt to just fax him back? Tell him anything. Tell him you don't believe in Santa. Tell him why. Ask him to prove Santa to you. In fact, ask him anything about Santa at all."
So she did. And did the kid have questions! Who invented fake snow and why? Why do we use red and green at Christmas? Just what is mistletoe? Oh, she had questions that would keep Ernest busy for weeks.
Around Thanksgiving, after Ernest had been faxing nearly every day, he offered to give Aubree an "Update from the North Pole" -- kind of a daily report of what happens with Santa Claus and the elves in the lead up to Christmas. And with these reports, Elf Ernest had some fun. He described food fights that elves would sometimes get into, the fact that Mrs. Claus would chide Santa about his diet, and, of course, the personalities of other key elves in Santa's operation -- people like Elf Bernard, the head of Santa's Workshop (this was BEFORE Disney's The Santa Clause movies, by the way, but that's another story...); Elf Hugo, who ran the Wrapping Department, and Elf Ed Zachary -- a wry, old elf whose job it was to write for the North Pole Gazette as Santa's Chief Defender. Aubree got a real kick out of him.
Elf Ernest and I were not sure if we were reaching her. But Elf Ernest was tenacious. He seemed to know what was on Aubree's mind and what was important to her. He drew paralells between what was going on in her life (a new Daddy, a new home, a new school, etc) and what was going on at the North Pole. When Elf Ernest explained, for example, that Santa had attended a Christmas devotional at his church Aubree could related because she had recently done the same thing.
But I knew we were finally getting through to her when we went as a family to cut down our Christmas tree. As we were coming home Aubree insisted on a discussion about what to name the tree. She was obsessed with this idea. In exasperation, my wife asked her why it was so important to name the tree. It was, after all, just a Christmas tree. Aubree feigned surprise and said "Mom! Don't you know? Elf Ernest says that Santa always names his tree. A tree is a living thing. We put it in our house and give it a place of honor. We sing in front of it. We put lights and decorations on it. It becomes a member of our family. We give it water so it will live. It becomes one of us, we have to give it a name!"
So our first Christmas tree was named Wally. And he is fondly remembered.
Of course, by the time Christmas Eve came around, Aubree was a believer. Elf Ernest made it easier to get through Christmas Eve by sending us a map of the world with instructions to track Santa on Christmas Eve. Every 15 minutes on Christmas Eve the fax machine would ring, telling us where Santa was and what he was doing. Aubree taped a piece of yarn to the map and all day long stretched it out from one exotic location to the next as he got closer and closer to our home.
I thought that would be it. Aubree, after all, was hooked. And I had my fun on Christmas Eve and we had the great traditional Christmas I had hoped for. Heck, we even invented our own new family tradition of tracking Santa that I knew the kids to come would be thrilled with.
But as the next Christmas rolled around and Aubree began writing again to Elf Ernest, I had no idea she was taking her faxes with her to school. I had no idea she had become a virtual missionary for Santa Claus. She told her grandparents about the faxes and soon Elf Ernest had to send the faxes to their workplaces just so they could keep up. Before long, my phone was ringing from other parents who wanted the faxes too. I had no idea there would so many Santa skeptics out there!
From there, it blossomed over the next several Christmases. Within a few years the faxes were making their way around the world and each day from Thanksgiving to Christmas we would receive excited replies to the "Update from the North Pole" as well as many new questions about Christmas. In fact, it was getting downright expensive and time consuming to manage it all.
That's when we discovered this thing called the Internet. We started with a book from the library about publishing web pages and we used a free hosting option offered by Yahoo. In time, we purchased our own domain name. Santa started receiving wishlists and questions by email. He and Ernest would do live chats. Little by little, year by year, it has become a bigger thing.
We are now a network of more than 30 websites -- of which, ClausNET is just the newest -- celebrating Christmas. We have discussion forums, Santa sites, quiz sites, and sites dedicated to all things Christmas. It just keeps getting bigger. We have a lot of help. Over the years, more than 200 Christmas lovers of talent have loaned their abilities to the cause -- writers, artists, programmers and experts in Christmas specialties -- have come together to build these sites and share Christmas with each other. It is, for me, a most heart warming modern day miracle.
But for me, Elf Ernest and Santa are still at the heart of it all. Elf Ernest almost exclusively runs Santa Update.com and Santa will, from time to time, pop up on the forums at My Merry Christmas. com to answer questions. Elf Ed Zachary still writes for the Gazette and has developed quite a loyal following of his own.
Aubree? She's 21 now. As the eldest of seven she still leads the charge each Christmas Eve, still taping yarn to the map of the world as we follow along with Santa every Christmas Eve.
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