We were cleaning up the living room before going to pick up a Christmas tree when Tristan (age 7) and Norah (age 5) started fighting over who got to put away Bun-Bun, the stuffed bunny they both loved.
"If you don't get the living room clean in the next 10 minutes, we will not have time to go get a tree, and if we don't get a tree, then Santa won't come because he won't have anywhere to put the gifts. Is that what you want?"
Tristan was gripping Bun-Bun by the head, while Norah was holding his legs. Both had angry, blue-eyed faces, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for poor Bun-Bun, being drawn and quartered by children who loved him so.
"Santa won't skip our house," Tristan said. He placed his hands on his hips, face in a matter-of-fact expression.
Sadly, he was right. Around Christmas time, I often make threats like this, but honestly, I wanted Santa to come as much as they did. I had new shoes and a new jacket coming. I might even get sex (not from Santa, from my wife). But there is something about the thought that maybe, just maybe, bad behavior can really spoil the deal, that makes the first 24 days of December wonderful for a parent.
All of these threats are based on elaborate lies, and with most dishonesty, the longer I go without telling the truth, the more I have to up the ante. My children are getting older and wiser, and the thought of a fat man in a red suit wandering the world in a flying sleigh delivering presents is getting less and less believable.
My parents used to just tell me that Santa was watching, and I'd look at the celling, and assume there was some ominous eye viewing my behavior. Things are much more tangible now. Four years ago we discovered the Portable North Pole (PNP). This was a personalized video made online that allowed me to have Santa personally tell my children to shape up or ship out. That worked for about two years. One evening, though, I thought it would be funny to make one of these videos for a grown friend. Tristan walked in as I was making it, and suddenly he was on to me.
The past two years we'd been using the Elf on the Shelf, a creepy slender little elf with blue shifty eyes and a porcelain, horror story face, that we bought online. It came with a story about how the elf reports back to Santa each night. This actually worked great for a while, but the problem is, according to the story, the elf moves around the house each night gaining different vantage points. Somehow this lends to the magic. I also think it promotes the idea that if someone isn't watching, you can essentially do what you want. Anyway, the problem with the elf is that Mel and I kept forgetting to move the stupid thing. At first we told them lies about the elf needing to check the room again.
"You probably did something bad in here," I said. "The elf is giving you a second chance to redeem yourself. I suggest vacuuming the carpet."
However, after a week of the elf not moving, Tristan and Norah both got suspicious and started asking too many questions.
I looked at Tristan and Norah, each with one hand still on Bun-Bun, and said, "Heck yes Santa will skip this house. In fact, I'm going to send him a text about this. I might even tell him to give your toys to children who pick up their crap without fighting."
Norah looked at me, her mouth open ever so slightly, and said, "You know Santa's phone number?"
I paused for a moment, mostly because I hadn't thought this all the way through. I often shoot from the hip as a parent, and this was definitely one of those moments.
"Yup," I said. "Santa and I send each other cat pictures." I cocked my head to the side, giving them a "what do you think of them apples" look.
Bun-Bun hit the floor.
Norah, the younger and more gullible one, started cleaning again, her face red and filled with urgency. Tristan, the older skeptic, approached me and said, "Let me see your phone."
He held out his little hand, his small stout shoulders stern. I didn't really know what to do, so I told him I needed to use the restroom. This is the same strategy my kids use when I confront them about leaving ice cream sandwich wrappers on the floor.
"Keep cleaning, and when I'm done, we will send Santa a text."
I was in the bathroom for some time, calling friends, and hoping that one of them would be willing to impersonate Santa. At first I felt a little guilty about all this. I was worried that whomever I called might think I'd taken it too far. I finally got ahold of an old friend from high school, John. When I told him what I was up to, he started laughing and called me a genius. I didn't feel all that smart, but after his confirmation, I started to feel really good about my actions. Sadly, though, were Santa real, I'd have to assume that he'd skip my house for pulling a stunt like this.
I changed John's name to "Santa" in my phone, and even went as far as to upload a photo of Santa into his profile.
I stepped from the restroom and showed Tristan this text from Santa.
"How's the cleaning going?"
His mouth dropped.
"Wait," I said. "He's writing something else." Norah was looking at the phone now. Tristan was the only one who could read, so he read this message to her.
"I don't want to have to skip over your house this year. I hope the wee ones are being good! I have a lot of good things for your children. It would be very sad, but children have to be nice and do what their parents ask them to do. I have to follow the rules..."
It was the "follow the rules" part that really got them. Both kids seemed to have a lightbulb moment, realizing that there might just be an outside set of rules that Santa had to follow. Rules that were not subject to leniency.
Tristan and Norah didn't ask if this was real or not. They didn't consider how easy it would be to change a name in my phone so a friend could impersonate Santa. They didn't say anything, actually. They simply got to work with a fearful vigor, and within 10 minutes, the living room was clean, and we were off to pick up a Christmas tree. And as we drove, I realized that the next 24 days were going to be glorious.