It had been a meager Christmas – one of those where the kids’ wish lists were more fantasy than realistic. One where we had to shuffle bills around, and do without a few things, to have a Christmas at all. But my kids were happy that morning; their stockings had been full of (dollar store) surprises and (bargain bin) candy, (rummage sale) books, and (clearance) stickers and stamps. They played with their Nerf knockoffs and cheap plastic cars, full of holiday joy, content with the gifts they had received.
Around noon, they went over to the neighbors’ house, excited to tell their friends about their Christmas morning. It wasn’t long before my middle son, who was six at the time, came back inside. His cheeks were aglow from the cold, but I could tell by his face that he had lost the jubilant spirit he’d left the house with.
“Santa brought the neighbors a Nintendo Wii,” he said solemnly, naming the most-wanted gift on their own lists, which we could definitely not afford. “Mom, why did Santa bring us sticker books and stuff like that? We asked him for a Wii too, but he didn’t bring us one.” His huge, soulful brown eyes sparkled with tears. “Is it because we were bad?”
My heart caught in my throat, rendering me unable to answer. No, sweetheart, I wanted to say. You have been good. You’ve all been so, so very good. I wanted to throw my arms around him and sob. I wanted to run to the nearest toy store and smash out a window and get them that video game console, jail time be damned. They never asked for a thing, damn it, never complained when they didn’t have what someone else had, tacitly understanding that we didn’t have the money for a lot of things. They deserved a stupid Wii so much, and we – and in turn, Santa – hadn’t been able to deliver. That wasn’t their fault, but I felt like they were being punished … and so did my son, who was visibly crushed, unable to understand why Santa fulfilled their friends’ wish lists but not theirs.
What could I say? My brain raced. I could be honest with him about Santa’s true identity, letting him know that their gifts didn’t reflect an iota of what they really deserved, but it would ruin the Christmas magic. And I didn’t want to take Santa away from him; he was still so little, with a lot of years left to believe.
So I wrapped him in my arms, and tried to keep my tone light and cheerful. I gently explained that Santa has a lot of children to give gifts to, and sometimes he just doesn’t have enough of the “good stuff” to go around – that, as with anything else, sometimes people get lucky and sometimes people don’t, and we’ve got to be grateful for what we do have. That’s a concept he was familiar with, and he seemed to comprehend what I was saying.
“Next year I’m sure you’ll be the lucky ones,” I whispered to keep my voice from cracking, mentally vowing to work double and save pennies and sell plasma until I was freaking dry in order to give them the kind of Christmas they dreamed of having.
This was several years ago, and even though my kids are older, a couple of them are still young enough to be excited about Santa. Now – thank goodness – we’re not in such a tough financial spot. These days, “Santa” can afford to bring my kids the fancy gifts their friends are getting … but he doesn’t. Their stockings are still stuffed with simple, inexpensive things, and any bigger, more exciting presents are from Mom and Dad. Because the image of my baby boy’s sad eyes, his crestfallen face, the dejected sound of his voice, are seared into my memory forever. And I never know who they’re going to talk to at school, whose Christmases are going to be compared, what other child is going to go home wondering what they’ve done to be snubbed by the jolly old elf.
Lots of things aren’t fair, and kids need to understand that. But life, unfortunately, gives us plenty of opportunities to teach that lesson. Christmas is not the time, especially when it involves being treated differently by a guy they put their faith in to make their wishes come true.
So until my kids all know the truth about Santa, he will remain the giver of simple surprises, not lavish gifts. Because it only took one look at my son’s holiday heartbreak to know that I’ll never risk imposing that on anyone else.