No, Katie, There is No Santa Claus

Kids, cousins and Santa in 2009Katie has been asking to take a picture with Santa for the past few days. She usually avoids pictures, so I was perplexed until I heard her whispering to Paige that she wanted to sit on Santa’s lap and pull his beard to see if it was real. “I’m also going to see if the elves’ ears are really pointed,” she told Ryan.

Tonight, Christmas Eve, Katie talked her sibs and cousins into a slumber party in my sister’s family room. They’re sleeping by the fireplace so they can wake up and see if Santa really comes down the chimney.

At bedtime, they were rolling around in their makeshift bed like puppies (puppies dressed in Christmas PJs) when I realized Ryan wasn’t in the picture. My sister went looking for him and found him eating Santa’s Christmas cookie.Ooops! This cookie was for Santa?

I haven’t cultivated the notion of Santa with any of my kids, but Katie’s sorta playing that she’s a skeptic of a cherished belief. You have to know Katie for that to make any sense. She’s the kid who relishes dispelling myths, even as she wants to believe…

With or without Santa, I love Christmas. While I hear others sigh over the traffic and bustle and seasonal stress, I happen to relish it all. Busy downtown sidewalks. Crowded malls. Bring it on. I love decorating the house and wrapping presents. I’m game for the double- and triple- booked days of parties and festivities with everyone!

Even so, I am keenly aware that the real tidings of great joy remain in the proclamation: For unto us, a Child is born. Unto us, a Son is given.

Christmas took on a particular significance the year Eric and I celebrated our first Christmas as parents. It was profound to hold little Megan at 10 months and contemplate the birth of Jesus as a baby in our world.

Today, with a dozen more years of life and motherhood under my belt, my understanding of Christmas continues to change. Sure, it’s still a celebration of our dear Savior’s birth. It’s God’s magnificent gift to this world. It’s only lately that I’ve started to grasp what this joy to our world really meant for God.

According to the parenting plan drafted in our divorce, our kids spend even-year Christmases with their Dad; odd years with me. When school let out for the holidays last year, the kids, their friends, and I baked and decorated cupcakes. My mother was visiting for her birthday, so we brought out a cake, sang to her, and then the kids left for their first Christmas with their Dad and his new wife.

I had never spent a Christmas without them since they were born. The house was too quiet. Too empty. My sister and nieces were stuck in Portland’s snowstorm. My Dad wasn’t flying up to join us until Christmas morning. There was little energy or enthusiasm to cook a big feast, so Mom and I went out to eat at the Lobster Shop for Christmas eve. I was so thankful to have my Mom in town, but it was awful to spend Christmas without my kids.

We didn’t read the Nativity story or open our stockings on Christmas eve. No one pestered me on Christmas morning to get up to open presents. There were no squeals and shrieks and hugs of joy over long-desired gifts. No demands to find batteries or play a new game or assemble something for someone.

I ached. And I fumed. I hadn’t wanted a divorce; hadn’t chosen this. And yet the standard legal agreements for children of divorce pretty much divide all major occasions without regard to who wanted out. It seemed so unfair. So unjust. Half of me understood that Eric should spend time with his children. And they should spend time with him. But the emotional side of me felt that he chose to leave, that he voluntarily walked away from our family for another one. So why should he get his new wife and his kids while I spent Christmas without them?

I tried very hard to put myself in Eric’s shoes and imagine the Christmases he spent without the kids. I tried to put aside the “he chose this” and find a place in my heart that wanted his joy and his happiness. To be honest, I couldn’t get there.

Our kids kicked a fuss about going to their Dad’s when Eric first moved out, but eventually they settled into the routine. They still balk about the disruption to their lives, the back and forth nature of it all, but I know that they’re mostly okay when they’re with their Dad.

As I trudged through the holiday last year, I thought about how difficult it is to wish someone well when they’ve hurt you. I thought about my kids and how much they mean to me, and I wondered how I’d feel if I knew my kids were going to struggle or suffer when they were with Eric. Suppose I knew they would be mocked, beaten or killed if I sent them there? Would I voluntarily hand the kids over at Christmas out of sheer concern for Eric’s happiness and well-being if it meant my children would be mistreated?

It was the first time that I really began to comprehend that “joy to the world” meant aching sorrow in heaven. In order for us to receive the gift of the Son, the Father had to hand over his beloved child. And He did it. Willingly. For a people who had rejected him…and would reject him again. He did it voluntarily, without a parenting plan telling him he had to. His Son suffered, and God didn’t swoop down to shield him from our harsh world. He was nailed to a cross, and God seemed to have forsaken Him.

Christmas will never be the same for me after last year. I listened to Ryan and Katie’s slumbering breaths as they shared a room with me last night and was profoundly grateful that I had this Christmas with them. I wrapped their gifts and anticipated all the fun they’d have with their cousins ripping off the paper in the morning. I played the game Around the World with Megan and reveled in the fact that she knows a lot these days…and beat me.

I have a tendency to be skeptical about so many things. A bit cynical at times. It’s work to have “faith be my eyes.”

No, Katie, there is no Santa Claus, but still, we can believe. We can believe because while we rejected him, God put our happiness above His own. While we were yet sinners, Jesus came to save us. And so, a weary world rejoices.

Unto us a Son is given. Unto us a Child is born. He is our Wonderful Counselor. Everlasting Father. Our Prince of Peace.

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Grandpa turns 96 today. On their 72nd wedding anniversary last March, he woke up and asked my grandmother if they were married.

“No,” she told him. “We’ve just been living together all these years.”

Grandpa’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He searches my face and tries to remember who I am. He asks me how many children I have. And then he asks me again. (On the other hand, maybe his memory is fine, and he’s asking in rhetorical surprise that anyone would voluntarily choose to have four kids.)

During my visits with him, infrequent because he lives in California, I wondered if he remembers playing soccer with me in their backyard, the laundry line poles our goal posts. I think about the afternoons Grandpa met me when school let out, carried my lunch box and sweater for me, and walked me to their home a half mile away. He’d fix an after school snack for me of cheese toast—his own concoction of eggs beaten with grated cheese and toasted until it formed a golden puff on top of a slice of bread. It was either cheese toast or toast with Marmite, that salty spread Grandpa discovered while he studied in Australia for a period of time.

I wish I saved the postcards I used to send Grandpa as a child. I’d write my grandparents from our vacations to Hawaii asking about my dogs. Grandpa strongly disliked animals, but he dutifully cared for my beloved pets whenever we were away. Dad traveled frequently for business, so I’d mail postcards from whatever city we landed in—Denver, Boston, Atlanta.

Grandpa saved my notes. He’d mark up my postcards, noting my spelling errors and punctuation problems, and go over them with me when I got home. I don’t remember being bothered by his editing. It was our routine. I expected it, and from a child’s perspective, I guess I was just pleased he had taken the time to read my missives and respond!

Although he was two units shy of a college degree, (it was his lifelong lament that he hadn’t finished college) Grandpa taught high school English in Singapore. He was invaluable when I had to diagram sentences. He could readily spot a misplaced modifier or explain a hanging participle. And he loved the Bard.

My Grandma sighs in exasperation when she recounts how Grandpa insisted on shipping crates of books, mostly Shakespeare, from Singapore to the U.S. instead of the heirloom bone china dishes imprinted with our family’s name. When their goods arrived months later by boat, the books were a soggy mess from the voyage.

Grandpa got a part-time job at Loma Linda University’s library after he “retired” in the United States. When I started to write research papers, I’d spend my after school hours with Grandpa in the library where he’d help me find an article in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, track down the microfilm, and show me how to operate the microfiche machines. (Ahhh, for the love of Google!)

When I think about how and why I opted into a career in journalism, I’m pretty sure that some seeds were planted and watered by Grandpa’s own appreciation for language and syntax and verse. Or perhaps I wanted to wield my own red pen one day. Whatever the causal factors, I am indebted to the gifts of ancestors and others, who formed and shaped my world largely through their natural inclinations to instruct or through the gift of time to play.

I wade through my day of meetings and budget projections; story pitches and freelance contracts. At home there are bills to be paid, school lunches to be made, laundry and dishes. And kids. A gaggle of kids making special requests for dinner, sighing over what they didn’t want to eat. Squabbling over who gets to sit at my right hand. Fighting for air space to tell me about what they read, what their teacher said, or to ask me what something means. And sometimes I do think, What does this all mean!? This day-to-day crossing off of “to-dos.”

On Tuesday, I watched our nation swear in the 44th President—the first man of African-American descent to hold the highest office in the land. And I thought about the legions of people who came before this man. People who opted to sit when they were supposed to stand. People who marched while others merely watched. President Obama took an oath of office because others before him offered their own lives in order to see justice flow like a river. It strikes me that decades rolled by before some ever saw the evidence of their efforts. Others never witnessed change in their lifetime.

And I think it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We see further, we reach higher because of those who have gone before us and paved the way. We celebrate monumental sacrifices of lives lost for a grand cause. But just as significant are those who are just there on a daily basis to feed, clothe, and care for us as they leave indelible imprints on our lives.

Today is Grandpa’s birthday. His shoulders are not as square and strong as they used to be. But across the years and the miles, I celebrate him, grateful for the overlap of his lifetime with mine.

Tonight my kids will have cheese toast for supper.