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.