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These are times of awakening for my 9-year-old son.
In just the last year, he’s asked me to explain to him sex, the existence of the platypus, Donald Trump’s comments on the “Access Hollywood” bus, Black Lives Matter, how you know you are in love and what it means to be transgender. Except for the platypus question, I have often struggled to find age-appropriate answers to his questions while being as honest as I can.
Usually, Gabriel’s biggest questions come at bedtime during that tender window after I’ve tucked him in and before I slip out of his room, moments that seem to bridge the boy he is and the adolescent he’s on the cusp of becoming. It is in those moments that his most stirring questions come up. And it’s when a few weeks ago he looked me deeply in the eyes and asked, “Mom, is Santa real?”
For a while, he’d been dropping hints he knew the truth. He’d muse aloud that the logistics of Santa’s present delivery system seemed impossible. Or tell my husband, Mike, and me about a kid at his school who said Santa didn’t exist. This holiday season, we suspected that as a fourth grader, he actually knew. So recently, we decided that if he asked us directly, it meant he was probably ready to know and that we’d tell him. And so, we did.
That evening, cuddled in his bed, he revealed he’d kind of known since last year when he realized the writing on the presents from Santa was the same as those from Mom and Dad. (Oops.) He wanted to know who ate the cookies he left for Santa each Christmas Eve (Mike raised his hand) and then who ate the reindeer’s carrots (sometimes our dog). And then, unexpectedly, we found ourselves pretty much having the same conversation we’d had this year when we talked about so many of the big social issues he’s newly become aware of, such as homelessness, bullying, and civil rights.
“We have a job to do,” I would tell him during those conversations. “We need to stand up for others and find ways to support them. We need to help each other and protect each other.”
On the night he learned the truth about St. Nick, we told him that now he has crossed over to being part of the answer of whether there is a Santa. Now you know, we told him, that Santa is in all of us. It is up to all of us to help each other in whatever way we can. It is up to us to watch out for others.
Earlier that day, we’d gone shopping to buy toys for kids in need. It’s our tradition every December 3 — the birthday of our firstborn son, Phoenix, who died in 2005 when he was only 7 months old. Phoenix would have turned 12 this year, and, while it’s hard to know how to mark these milestones, honoring his joyous spirit by going Christmas shopping for a child who might not have many presents feels closest to right. We’ve always talked openly with Gabriel about the brother he never met, but yet longs for. And he loves Phoenix’s birthday tradition. But why, he has sometimes wondered, wouldn’t Santa just bring those kids toys? After all, he comes to everyone, right?
As parents we want to protect our children in every possible way. But sometimes we cannot shield them from the hardest truths of life and death and everything in between.
And so, I loved that Gabriel believed in Santa and all of the innocence and magic that comes with that. It was a wonderful respite from some of life’s realities.
I never believed in Santa as a child. My mom worried that if she played into the myth, I would no longer trust her when I learned the truth. I never felt like I was missing out because my magical mother always made me feel like I was a keeper of a sacred secret that few other children got to know. And so, I worried about how Gabriel would feel about me after he knew. Would he no longer trust me?
The next morning, he sat down to write his Christmas wish list — the first time he knew he was writing it to my husband and me, not Santa.
He asked for the usual things, certain toys and the annual Christmas request for a real baby monkey (one can always hope). But this year he also asked for a few special items: food for the food bank, blankets for the people in the homeless encampment not far from where we live, and clothes for children who need them.
In the weeks since, he’s also asked to buy gifts requested on the giving tree at the mall for kids in foster care. He’s helped pick out the toys for his younger godbrother and godsister, knowing they will believe the presents are from Santa, not him. After all, he is now the keeper of the secret.
I know there will be questions from him in the months and years to come that I’ll bungle and fumble my way through as I seek to help him carry forward the magic of childhood into the realities of the world. We’ll find our way together, I know.
But right now, I’m savoring one of the best gifts I could ever receive: I got to see my son go to sleep a boy and wake up as a Santa.
Linda Annette Dahlstrom Anderson is a writer and editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She lives in Seattle with her husband, Mike and her son, Gabriel. Follow her on Twitter: @Linda_Dahlstrom.