The Question

 

I should have seen it coming.

It’s basically a rite of passage that nearly every child must face, and my son is, after all, a very smart fourth-grader. Besides, he’s my third child; I’ve done this twice before and I should have been better prepared.

This time, it hurt. Maybe it’s because he’s my baby, my last little one, my late-in-life “bonus” child. Or maybe it’s because I’m just older and more emotional now than I was ten years ago when his siblings asked The Question.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. They never really asked. They just sort of figured it out and made the transition without any kind of trauma or fallout. I guess I expected it to go just as smoothly this time around.

Yesterday, my little Rooster looked at me with those great big blue eyes that are impossible to lie to, and he asked me in his direct way, “Mom, do you believe in Santa?”

I wish he’d asked me if Santa is real. That would have been easier to answer.

santa
Ah, the good old days!

 

 

Do I believe in Santa?

I was eight years old when I asked my mom for the truth. She wasn’t always a great mother, but she had a few moments of brilliance, and that was one of them. I remember how she explained to me that Santa is indeed real. Not as a jolly fat man in a red suit, she explained, but in the spirit of giving to others. He’s real in our hearts as long as we keep him alive in the joy of Christmas morning, in the happiness that comes with believing in something that we can’t see or touch or prove. As long as we believe in magic.

I realize now that she borrowed pretty heavily from Francis Church’s 1897 editorial assuring a little girl that “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” but it did the job. I felt so grown up when she trusted me with the truth, and even more so when she woke me up at midnight to help her put the presents under the tree. It’s one of my best Christmas memories.

So I would have known how to answer my son if he had asked me if Santa is real. I like to think I would have been just as helpful (if unoriginal) as Mom was.

But do I believe in Santa?

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! … Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. 

— “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”

 

I used to believe. Even as an adult, rushing around to get the gifts and make the food and dress the kids in their holiday best before hurrying off yet to another family gathering with this aunt or that grandma or those aunts and uncles and cousins. In the midst of the whirlwind, I believed.

In Polar Express, Santa says, “This bell is a wonderful symbol of the spirit of Christmas – as am I. Just remember, the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.”

Oh, the true spirit of Christmas was in my heart!

Christmas is different now for my little Rooster than it was for his brother and sister, who are a decade older. There are fewer family gatherings, and the family that gathers is so much smaller now. The few remaining members of my side of the family tree don’t even get together for holidays any more; my ex-husband’s side has drifted over the years until my youngest barely even knows his cousins.

There have been divorces and remarriages and deaths; children have grown up and moved out and become adults with lives of their own, and something about Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas any more.

It’s just Rooster and me in my little apartment now. I thought about getting a smaller tree this year and not even dragging out the big boxes of ornaments and decorations. After all, it’s not like anyone will actually see any of them. It’s just him and me now. Is it even worth it to haul out the Christmas mugs and the homemade ceramic nativity set? The latch hook toilet cover? The Christmas quilt I sewed for Aunt Marian?

Is it really worth it?

Do I believe in Santa?

Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.

— Polar Express

I must have hesitated too long. My little boy crawled under the rocking chair and refused to look at me. “I knew about the Tooth Fairy,” he told me. “And the Easter Bunny. But I wanted to believe in Santa.”

So did I, Sweetheart. So did I. 

“I don’t want to do Christmas this year,” he added.

My heart broke, just a little.

His father arrived shortly after that to pick him up, and we talked about it as a family. A fractured family, perhaps, but still a family. Rooster seemed to perk up a little bit before crawling out of his hiding place. A year ago, he would have curled up on my lap and dried his tears on the front of my shirt; this year, he wants desperately to prove that he is too old for that. A quick hug, and he was out the door before I realized that I had never actually answered him.

Do I believe in Santa?

I don’t know how long I sat there alone, asking myself that question. Long enough for it to get dark outside, dark enough for me to see the Christmas lights in the park in the center of my little town.

The lights reminded me of my family’s tradition of visiting Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park to see the decorations every year. My sisters and I would race each other down “Candy Cane Lane” and slide down the little snowy hill between the Wisemen and their camels. We’d snicker every year about the cracks and chipped paint on the faces of Mary and Joseph before dashing away to gaze in awe at all the lights on the trees — especially the giant Salvation Army tree.

Most of those trees were destroyed with the tornado went through downtown Kalamazoo in 1980. That cheesy old Nativity scene is long gone, and there are no more decorations placed on the snowy hill because it turned out to be an Indian burial mound. It’s the same park, but it’s not the same.

Or is it?

It’s still Christmas. Different trees, different decorations, different ways of celebrating. We can still go to Kalamazoo and race each other down “Candy Cane Lane” or catch a ride on the Holly Jolly Trolley, or we can stay right here in our own town and attend the tree-lighting party in the park, surrounded by our friends and neighbors.

We can make new traditions because it’s still Christmas.

It’s still Christmas, and we have each other, and we have memories, new and old. We still love each other, despite divorce and distance and paths that have taken some of us in different directions. There are moments of sadness, it’s true, but there are moments of joy as well, and it’s up to us to hang on to all of those moments and cherish them for what they are.

Do I believe in Santa?

Absolutely.

 

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

— “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”

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Happy Holidays

christmas-cup

If we were having coffee this morning, I’d start out by wishing you Happy Holidays. There might be an awkward moment after that while I try to figure out if that was a mistake; after all, you might not celebrate Christmas and it might have been a safer bet to greet you with something about Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Solstice.

Maybe I should have just said “Here, take your coffee.”

You know, I think we just make things too hard for ourselves this time of year. There’s no need to take a stand or defend your beliefs or even worry about political correctness. Fighting over whether it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is just pointless because, you see, I’ve got it all figured out.

That’s right, folks, I know exactly what we need to do to get along this holiday season.

We just need to be nice.

Look, I know all about “The Reason for The Season.” I’m a Christian, and I celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ. I put the star on my tree and I listen to countless versions of Mark Lowry’s “Mary Did You Know” and I get chills at the reminders that my Savior was born in a quiet stable on that Holy Night. I believe. I believe in all of it. I draw strength from that belief throughout the year.

But I also have fun with Christmas and all of the traditions that come along with it that have nothing to do with religion. Decorating the tree with ornaments that have been in my family for years. Plucking my cat out of said tree when he tries to play with those ornaments. I love hiding that stupid Elf on the Shelf and telling lies about having Santa Claus on speed dial, and I adore all the giggling and sneaking around to find just the right gift for the people I love.

I also love it when the school band plays “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” at their Christmas concert. I think the Menorah in my neighbor’s window is just lovely.

I look forward to being invited to my friend’s annual Solstice Bonfire every year.

I say “Happy Holidays” not because I’m trying to be politically correct or because my Christian beliefs are being suppressed in any way. I say it because the traditions surrounding this time of year are fun and beautiful regardless of how you celebrate. I say it out of a genuine desire to wish you happy holidays, period.

When I was in high school, I was confirmed into the Presbyterian Church after several weeks’ worth of confirmation classes. There were perhaps a half-dozen of us who attended class every week before church on Sundays, and most of us were pretty grumpy about having to get up that early.

As part of our confirmation class, our pastor required us to attend church services for different denominations and beliefs before we were allowed to officially join our Presbyterian church. We went to Catholic Mass and a Baptist service; we visited a Synagogue where the boys in our group were instructed to don yarmulkes as a sign of respect.

What’s my point here? We were welcomed into all those houses of worship even though we didn’t technically belong. And we behaved with respect and courtesy during our visits. Our beliefs, our traditions, were not challenged or diminished in any way by opening ourselves up to beliefs and traditions that were different from ours.

It’s been more than thirty years since I was confirmed into my Presbyterian Church back in Portage, Michigan. I can’t speak for the others in my class, but I’m still a Christian. I probably lean a bit more toward a non-denominational type of Christianity at this point, but I have never forgotten the lessons I learned back then.

A little kindness goes a long way. A little understanding goes even further. And a little respect can mean the world.

So wish me a Merry Christmas. Tell me to have a Happy Hanukkah or a Joyous Solstice. Say what’s in your heart and mean it when you say it, and everything else will take care of itself. I promise not to be offended because we worship in different ways.

Because when I say “Happy Holidays” to you, I am not being politically correct or having my Christian beliefs suppressed in any way. I am saying, “However you celebrate, whatever you celebrate, I wish for you to feel all the joy and love and peace that you can possibly feel all through the year. May you be surrounded by those you love; may your heart be full of happiness.”

Happy holidays, y’all.

 

A Traditional Family Christmas

This holiday season, I hope to establish some new traditions. But I have to be careful, because in my family the word “tradition” is sort of a bad word.

When I was growing up, my aunts were really into holiday traditions. Everything we did was supposed to have some kind of significance, from the precise placement of Grandma’s porcelain angel bells to the exact shade of Christmas toilet paper. Our Christmas with the aunts was always the weekend before the actual holiday, and Aunt Marian was determined to cram MEANING into every second of every day of the entire weekend.

Christmas with Mom, on the other hand, was much less predictable. The most charitable way to describe my mother’s holiday traditions would be to say “Well, she tried.” In fact, that was the best part of Christmas with her — she kept trying different things every year. The only constant about holidays with Mom was the fact that she would let us all open our gifts from Grandma on Christmas Eve.

And that was only because we all knew that Grandma was going to send us all matching nightgowns that she had purchased at Dillard’s Department Store in Jonesboro. Grandma worshipped Dillard’s the way most folks worship God, although she was pretty vague on which granddaughter wore what size and we all ended up swapping gifts with each other until we found one that fit.

I think our most memorable Christmas was the year Mom decided that we should all go to church on Christmas Eve. Now, there’s nothing wrong with going to church on Christmas Eve. Jesus is, after all, “the reason for the season”.  It’s just that we were never really a church-going family. We went on Easter and whenever Mom worried that one of us was sinning more than usual.

On that particular Christmas Eve, she made a batch of chili for our dinner and then ordered us all to get dressed up for the big evening service.  But she didn’t take us to “our” church. For some unknown reason, the woman took all of us — including my two adult step brothers — to an ornate, hundred year-old house of worship in downtown Kalamazoo. It was enormous, with high ceilings and lots of religious statues and plenty of stained glass.

It was beautiful, but it It wasn’t our church.

It wasn’t even our denomination.

To this day, I have no idea what denomination it was. I just know that it involved a lot of kneeling. Everywhere around us, people were bouncing up and down like bits of human popcorn. We tried to blend in and do what everyone else was doing, but we sort of gave ourselves away when a man on our pew bent to retrieve his pen and my entire family hit the floor.

About thirty minutes into the service, the Christmas Eve chili began to work its magic on my stepbrothers. I’m not talking about a gentle, unavoidable “right cheek sneak” during a loud hymn. No, these boys didn’t do anything halfway. Dedicated followers of the Go-Big-Or-Go-Home school of thought, they were busily exploring the full comedic and acoustic possibilities of flatulence in a quiet, high-ceilinged room.

By the time we got back to our car, Mom was furious. As for me, I was pretty firmly convinced that we had offended both Santa and Jesus, and that I was going straight to hell without any Christmas presents.

Now that I have kids of my own, I don’t serve chili or go to church on Christmas Eve. We have a few traditions, most of which involve food. This year . . . well, this year is kind of rough.

It’s been two years since my husband and I split. Last year, he still came to my house to watch the kids open their presents, and we were very cordial about splitting our time with them. But this year, I’m in a tiny apartment and he’s in a committed relationship with someone else. And with our daughter away at college and our oldest son graduating in the spring, it’s time to face the fact that our holidays are never going to be the same.

I’m doing my best to see this as a positive thing. It’s a clean slate, an opportunity to start fresh with my youngest son with a whole new set of holiday traditions. We’ll still make our sugar cookies from his Great-great Grandma Tice’s recipe, and this year he’ll be able to write the note to Santa without my help. By next year, he may have outgrown Santa.

I really hope he outgrows that creepy little elf soon.

Image result for creepy elf on the shelf

This holiday season, I hope to face Christmas with a positive attitude. I hope to keep in mind that this is a new beginning or me, and I hope to come up with a few fun and meaningful traditions for my Little Man and me to follow every year.

And  . . .

I hope that all of you out there have a safe and rewarding holiday season, surrounded by those you love.  Go ahead, share some of your family traditions or even some of your funniest Christmas memories!

This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post: “This holiday season, I hope…” hosted by Kristi at Finding Ninee and Lisa from The Golden Spoons. Please visit their blogs to see what other writers have done with this prompt!

 

If you enjoyed what you read here today, please check out my book Have a Goode One! It’s free on Kindle December 11-12.

Climbing Down

This holiday season, I will get into the holiday spirit.  Eventually.

Really, I will.

Any other year, I would have been nearly Christmas-ed out by this point.  Sick of Christmas Carols, offended by the over-commercialization of the holiday season, struggling to find places for all of my aunts’ hand-me-down ornaments that I couldn’t bear to let go.  I would have spent my evenings snuggled on the couch with my youngest child, pretending that I was watching all of those Rankin-Bass Christmas shows because he wanted to.

I’m just not feeling it this year.

I’ve gone to my kids’ holiday parties and band concerts at school, and I sat in the audience with my husband and the Upgrade and her little boy and my kids like some sort of modern Brady Bunch, and I had a really strange desire to hug her because she is really really nice and I almost believe that we are going to be able to make this “friendly divorce” business work.  But I’m not feeling any warm feelings when I see the lights and tinsel, and I haven’t bought any gifts yet.  I don’t even know what to buy for anyone.

I have put some thought into how many cups of Rum Chata-laced egg nog I can drink alone before I have to add alcoholism to my list of things to worry about.

For some reason, I keep thinking about a poem I read all the way back in high school:

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

I couldn’t remember the rest of it, so I turned to Google and found that it was called “Christ Climbed Down”, written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1958.  Then, because I am easily distracted and a poetry nerd, I went on to learn all kinds of things about Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his fellow Beat Poets, which then led to a binge on the works of e.e. cummings and others.  I finally stopped after bawling my way through “anyone lived in a pretty how town”, especially the part about how someones married their everyones.

When my marriage imploded, I thought I would be on my own by Christmas.  I pictured myself in a new home with a small, tasteful tree and understated, classy decorations.  Of course, tasteful, understated and classy are not words that anyone has ever used to describe anything I have ever done.  If it helps, I’ve always been a very elegant person in my imagination.  Especially after a few cups of egg nog with Rum Chata.

I had this great mental picture of myself being really cool about everything this first year, but it’s just not working out that way.  I’m still here, in the house I’ve shared with my husband for almost two decades.  We are up to our ears in boxes and clutter and uncertainty until there’s just no room for a tree.  We’ve hung the stockings and I try to remember to move that stupid elf to a new location every morning, but that’s about it.

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

This year is my Ferlinghetti Christmas.  I don’t want the plastic tree and Hallmark ornaments, and I swear to God I am going to kick the radio the next time I hear that moronic song about wanting a hippopotamus for Christmas.  I don’t want to see the flashing lights or that tacky little Nativity set we own that has Mary and Joseph as Native Americans in front of a teepee with a tiny papoose as the Baby Jesus.

Xmas-Native_Nativity

I want Ferlinghetti’s bare tree with a simple star on top.  I want to hear Carols about Jesus, about Faith, about His love.  I don’t care about Santa or presents or wrapping paper or hippopatamii.

I will get into the Holiday Spirit at some point over the twelve days.  I swear.  But it’s going to be a different kind of Holiday Spirit this year.  Oh, I’m keeping the egg nog and Rum Chata – I’m buying it in bulk.  As for the rest of it – the decorations and the music and the presents and the forced gaiety of the whole thing – I’ve decided to let my husband have custody of it all this year.

This year, my Holiday Spirit is about trusting in God to watch over me and my loved ones to make sure that we all get through this as painlessly as possible.  It’s about learning to care about my husband as a friend instead of a lover, about forging a good relationship with his new love and trusting that we are all going to be adults about this.  It’s about having a good Christmas because of who we are and how we treat each other, not about the size of our rootless plastic tree or the amount of lights we can pile on it.

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest of
Second Comings

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

I know you don’t get many letters from people my age, but I am writing to you because I find myself facing Christmas this year without very much to believe in.

I can accept the fact that there won’t be many presents under the tree for me.  I’m an adult; I can handle it.  The Big Guy and I have agreed that it would be foolish to exchange gifts this year, and I’ve always taught my kids to spend their money on each other rather than on me.  With Mom and Dad and The Girls gone, that leaves only my sister, with whom I have also agreed not to exchange gifts.

Christmas isn’t all about the presents.   But Santa, I still have a wish list of everything that I want this year.

I want to sign the papers on my little house and get started on the next part of my life.  It’s just a worn-out manufactured home on less than an acre of land, but it’s in my price range and it’s got enough bedrooms for my kids and me.  And it’s got closets, something I have lived without for the past eighteen years.

Ah, closets!  I could spend weeks extolling the virtue of having places to put things away!  But I digress.

I want an easy winter this first year on my own.  It has been too easy to sit back and let the Big Guy do all of the driving in bad weather.  He says he will still do more than his fair share of it now, but I don’t want to be that ex-wife.  I want to get along with him and be nice to each other despite our divorce, but I don’t want to need him.

I will not be pathetic.  I will not need a man who doesn’t need me.

Santa, I want a good night’s sleep.  I’ll settle for five or six good hours, if that’s all I can get.  I want to drift off gently instead of tossing and turning until I pass out from sheer exhaustion, and I want to stop waking up at two, at three, at four-thirty, staring at the ceiling and listening to thoughts and memories chase each other around my mind until I give up and make an extra-strong pot of coffee to get me through the day.  Coffee that I used to divide between his white Chemtreat mug and my seagull mug every morning, but that I now pour into just mine.

Coffee for one, please
Coffee for one, please

Santa, I want my kids to like the Upgrade, and I beg you to see to it that she loves them, treats them well.  But please, please, see to it that they don’t love her more.  Give me something, some way to compete in their eyes.  She is younger, prettier, happier with this new love in her life.

Please, Santa, give my children the gift of understanding that their boring, lonely old mother has always done her best.

And someday, Santa, I want to love someone again.  Maybe not this year, maybe not for several years.  But please, let me know that I haven’t lost the ability to love, that my heart is going to be good for something besides just pumping blood back and forth in my chest.

I don’t need roses or candlelight dinners.  I just want someone who will say “I love you” first instead of always “love you, too”.  Someone who will sit with me on the couch and watch stupid TV shows together or hold my hand in public, who doesn’t care what people think if he kisses me right in the middle of the park during the town Christmas Festival.  Someone who cares enough to remember the stupid, tiny details about me, like my favorite color or the fact that I hate apple pie.

Someone who will still think I am beautiful, even after eighteen years – and who will say so once in a while.

Someone who won’t go looking for an Upgrade, because I will be enough for him.

Someone who will love me as much as I love him.

All I want for Christmas, Santa, is a little bit of Hope that everything is going to be okay, and that life is going to get better.