It was no treat living outside of Cleveland for a year when my kids were little. It snowed on November 1st and the sun went on sabbatical until May. I'd grown up in Philadelphia, had lived in Hershey, Pennsylvania and had spent a few years in Chicago, so it wasn't really the cold that battered me so much as the gray. But the holiday season, coupled with the wonder of childhood, had a way of brightening even the darkest of cityscapes.
It was easy to forget that chill as I cozied up with my 4-year-old son on the sofa that backed up against our a floor-to-ceiling window. The hill on which we lived gave us a view of two streets lined with houses. On this night, most homes were flickering with Christmas lights. They flickered and limmered and we had a front row seat. The snow reflected not only the moonlight, but those strings of icicle lights and flashing North Pole signs. While I admired the fleeting beauty in my neighborhood, my son was contemplating the flip side of an age-old childhood quandary.
"How will Santa know not to come here?" He was as serious as a 4-year-old can be.
We didn't have a chimney, but that didn't matter. The even more relevant fact that we are Jewish and so do not celebrate Christmas in any way, shape or form -- even as a secular holiday -- was not sufficient enough to quell the fears of my pensive preschooler.
As a mom, I was at a fork in the road of parenting. I could have very well told him that parents leave all the presents, and that Santa isn't real, just a nice guy in a costume. I could have explained that parents do that for their children because it's fun and part of the Christmas tradition in our country. But, those words stuck in my throat. That wasn't what he was asking. He believed. He was 4. And even though it wasn't my myth to perpetuate, I did not want him to lose his sense of awe and wonder. Even of Santa.
He was not hoping for a few misbegotten toys to show up on Christmas morning, although I'm sure he found himself somewhat distracted at the idea of yet another Power Ranger. He wasn't secretly wishing for a tree, nor did he want to leave cookies and milk "just in case." He'd been showered with gifts for eight nights of Hanukkah and he attended a Jewish preschool. I knew he wasn't feeling deprived or left out of anything. At that point in his life, he didn't know anyone who celebrated Christmas. To him, the thought of a big man in a red suit coming into his house was troubling, even scary. He wanted my reassurance there was no way that guy and his sleigh were going to land on our roof and traipse through our little bungalow. And while it was my job to quell his fears, I did not want to burst a childhood bubble of belief.
"See those lights?" I pointed out the window. He nodded. "Santa only goes to the houses with the lights."
"Oh," he said.
A good save.
When my son lost his first tooth later that year, the same thing happened with the Tooth Fairy. My kid was mortified. He wanted no part of some stranger coming into his room in the middle of the night, flying no less, and sticking her hand under his pillow! Money or not, this was just not an idea he was buying into. So, we put his pillow on the kitchen table with the tooth under it. And, I'll be darned, that Tooth Fairy is one smart magical creature. She knew just where to go.
Tooth fairies, we learned, are very accommodating.
I think about these events every time the Santas reemerge in the malls and on the street corners. I smile. I wonder what I'd have done if we did indeed celebrate Christmas. Would I have dressed my son in his plaid finery and plunked him on St. Nick's lap at the local mall, screaming in terror? You know, the way he did when he I took him for a hair cut? I'll never know.
What I do know is that I smile when I see the adorably dressed, color coordinated tikes lined up, sucking on their candy canes ready to meet the big guy in the red suit. And I love teasing my son about sitting on Santa's lap now. I promise Santa would be the one shaking in his boots as my almost 21-year-old asked for what he really wants. (That's something I really do not want to ponder.)
My son, who stands 5'9" to my 5'3", still smiles like a little boy when I tell him these tales of his long-ago worries and questions. His stature has changed, yet not so much his sweetness. I've never been sorry that I rewrote the script for some childhood characters to meet the needs of our family at that moment.
If there's one thing I'm sure of it's this: things change. And that's one reason I'm confident in saying that anyone who wants to leave money under my son's pillow, or come down the chimney and leave presents, is more than welcome to do so.