It’s one of those moments you dread as a parent.
My daughter looked at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. She’d asked the question indirectly a few times over the years, but I was never sure how to respond. But, here we were, and I wasn’t going to be able to skate around it this time.
Is Santa real?
I sat across from her and rested my folded arms on the table.
“Yeah, sweetie, Santa is real. But not in the way that you think.”
Five years ago, I was a single mom raising two little girls on a small town waitress’s salary. Not much was certain at that time in our lives, but one thing I was pretty sure about was that there weren’t going to be many presents under the tree that year. Not when there was back rent to pay and lights to keep on. My daughters were 5 and 3 at the time, and I intended to do everything I could to keep the Christmas season magical for them. I had no idea just how magical that Christmas would turn out to be.
I had just put the kids to bed and was curled up on the couch with my computer on my lap and a glass of chardonnay in my hand. While browsing, I ended up on Reddit, and eventually found myself on a page called Santa’s Little Helpers. Struggling parents could upload wishlists for their children in the hopes that generous strangers might choose their families to support throughout the holiday season. The page features an amazing group of moderators who try their best to make sure every child in need receives at least one toy or gift, so I decided to give it a shot.
Within a week, packages started to trickle in and it became clear that the space under the tree would be much less bare than I had nervously anticipated. Not with all the books, dolls, science kits, and art supplies that had found their way into the back of my closet. One kind woman even reached out to me and told me to send her a wishlist for myself, because “moms deserve to have something nice under the tree too.” She sent me two packages, which I wrapped without opening.
Then, my youngest daughter got sick. And when she gets sick, her asthma flares up. Her blood oxygen levels dipped dangerously low, and her shallow, desperate gasps for air weren’t getting the job done. It was five days before Christmas, and I was holding my baby’s hand in the back of an ambulance while she was attached to an oxygen mask struggling to breathe.
This wasn’t our first rodeo; just three months earlier, we had spent a full week in the hospital waiting for her breathing to stabilize. That was hard, but this would be harder. As one day passed and then another, it didn’t look like she would be stable enough to spend Christmas at home.
One afternoon as I left the hospital chapel (where, despite my skepticism about religion, I spent a lot of time hurling up desperate prayers in the hopes that one might stick), a staff member pulled me aside. Did I know, she asked, about the holiday gift room?
She led me down the hall to a room not much larger than a closet. I walked through the door and my jaw dropped. The room was filled all the way to the ceiling with toys, books, clothing, and anything else that a child could ever want. Two hospital volunteers dressed as elves handed me a large bag and instructed me to choose five gifts. I told them that I would choose one or two, but that I had another daughter at home and wanted to keep things fair. “Oh, that’s fine!” said one of the elves. “Take five for her, too! With all the donations we get throughout the year, we have more than enough to go around.”
As I made my way through the stacks of gifts, tears welled up in my eyes. Just weeks ago, I was preparing for a slim Christmas made rich with love instead of presents. Now, stockings would be full, and my heart was even fuller.
The next morning, we received the best gift of all. Grace had unexpectedly turned a corner in the night and was breathing well on her own. Well enough, it seemed, that she would be ready for discharge that afternoon. The doctors were surprised—as of the night before, it was all but certain that we would be waking up on Christmas morning in the pediatric unit. Now, we were packing up and headed home. It would be one of the happiest Christmases that our little family ever enjoyed.
I recounted this story to my oldest child, now 10, as she sat across from me at the table. Santa isn’t a single person, I explained. Santa is the time spent with family, telling stories about a jolly guy in a red suit. Santa is the kindness of a stranger whose donation puts a smile on the face of a child they don’t know on Christmas morning. Santa is the hospital volunteer who spreads joy to families who are spending Christmas in the last place they want to be. Santa is the woman who remembered that mothers are people too; the kindred spirit that I think of every time I pass the wall containing the art print that I found under the tree that year.
My daughter is Santa too, this year. For her sister, who still believes in the magic of Christmas without question. For me, as I watch her light up because she’s just thought of the perfectplace to hide the Elf on the Shelf. And for herself, as she learns firsthand with her own experiences spreading love and kindness, how magical and real the spirit of Santa really is.
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