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.