When the Magic of Christmas Dies

PARENT WARNING: This blog post is for parents only. Do not read this where your kids can see it. Don’t read it out loud to them, either (not that you would, but I’m trying to be thorough). In fact, bookmark this post and read it after the kids go to bed.

 

Christmas magic died for my daughter yesterday afternoon. It was an accident. Her little brother, looking for a stray sock, stumbled upon the hiding place where I’d stashed his Christmas gift. Being the innocent six year-old that he is, Jon didn’t understand why there was an Xbox tucked away in my bedroom. I told him it was mine and he needed to leave it alone. He said, “Cool! Maybe we’ll both get an Xbox for Christmas!” and then proceeded to go on as if nothing were out of the normal.

Ella, however, looked dead at me and I knew.

*****

This story really begins about two years ago when Ella got off the bus with a pained look on her face. She sidled up to me, slipped her tiny hand into mine, and said she wanted to ask me something.

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked.

“I promise.”

“My friend on the bus said there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. She says it’s just your mom and dad putting presents on the tree and moving the Elf around the house.”

My heart stopped. Ella looked up at me, her green eyes glinting.

“Is that true, daddy?”

*****

I’ll never forget those eyes, especially since they reappeared yesterday afternoon. The hurt. The sadness. The betrayal. It was too much to deal with, so I hustled the kids off to the kitchen and fixed them a treat — brownie sundaes — hoping to just let the uncomfortable moment pass. Jon was fine with it. Ella was not.

So I talked it over with Rachel. We knew we were going to have to tell Ella the truth, but Rachel was adamant that we not blow things up for Jon. It was going to be awkward.

I walked into the kitchen and sat down next to Ella. Jon was across from us, his back to the living room. Ella grabbed my hand. I took a deep breath. She looked at me. I looked at her. Her eyes were so sad.

And all I could do was laugh.

I know. I suck as a father. I’m used to it by now.

I laughed because Ella never let go of that question the little girl put into her mind two years ago: Is Santa real? For the last couple of Christmases, doubt has been an ever-present part of our festivities. Ella wasn’t belligerent about it or anything, but she would just have these moments when her brain would circle back around to the issue. And every time she would ask me or Rachel about the reality of Santa’s existence, we would patiently (and sometimes impatiently) explain that yes, Santa was real.

Last year, we actually softened it and said that as long as she believed Santa was real, that was all that mattered. And that seemed good enough for Ella. If nothing else, she trusted her mom and dad.

And that’s why I laughed: the absurdity of the entire situation simply overwhelmed me, and my response to absurdity is laughter. My daughter, who might just be the single greatest detective alive, finally had the confirmation she needed. Her long-held suspicion was true: mom and dad were behind the jolly fat man.

*****

To Ella’s credit, she ate her sundae and didn’t say a word. When she was finished, she got up and went to her room. I had to get ready for my company’s Christmas party, so Jon followed me to hang out and Rachel went to check on Ella.

She was laying on her bed, crying. Not because Santa wasn’t real, but because her childhood was over. Rachel sat down next to her and stroked her hair, and Ella wept over the death of a part of her childhood. The magic of Santa, of the Elf on the Shelf, of the lights and the tree and everything else was now exposed to the cold reality. Ella lifted her head, put it in Rachel’s lap, and sobbed.

“I just don’t want to grow up,” she said through tears.

My wife is a brilliant and godly woman. And God gave her the wisdom in that moment to explain to Ella about what Santa really means. How he’s a symbol for hope and good. How he inspires people to be generous and kind. How he creates a magic that we, as her parents, didn’t want to rob her of because there is so precious little magic in the world. Especially as adults. Rachel shared how Christ is really the focus of Christmas, but in a world that has gone cold to the message of Jesus, Santa is the best that some people can do.

“We’ve seen people who grew up without the magic of Christmas,” Rachel told her. “And we didn’t want that for you. We wanted you to have the memory as something precious to hold on to.”

Ella wiped her face and looked at Rachel, and folks, there is a God in heaven and he moves in our lives, because at that moment Rachel said Ella’s face changed. The tears went away and a wide and astonished wonder took its place.

Ella looked at Rachel and said, “If there’s no Santa, that means you and daddy have been the ones giving all of my expensive gifts for Christmas.”

What had been a moment of devastation was suddenly a moment of comprehension. It was a sudden shift in Ella’s worldview: in a moment, she was flooded with gratitude for everything Santa had given her, because she finally understood where it all came from.

“It was you,” she said.

Rachel explained to Ella how we manage to make Christmas fun, how we work hard to afford the gifts that her and Jon ask for. Ella thanked Rachel and gave her a big hug. It was a moment I missed, but one that moved me when Rachel shared it.

*****

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t conflicted. There’s a huge part of me that is absolutely devastated that Ella knows the truth. There’s an equally huge part of me that is glad to be done with the charade, if only because it means Ella won’t go through this season grilling me like Jack McCoy.

(Ella, being a smart little girl, quickly pieced together the truth about the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, so we had to own up to our roles there. We actually got a good laugh about the Tooth Fairy because Rachel and I both despise that ritual).

But there’s something missing now that she knows the truth. Ella woke up this morning still a little sad. After all, she has to keep the secret for another couple of years because Jon still believes. We’ve also made it clear that she’s not to spoil things for others the way that one little girl did for her. Ella, because she is kind and generous and full of light, has agreed to hold the line and let other kids keep the magic a bit longer.

I mentioned yesterday that it was strange moving deeper into adulthood. So many things for which you’re not prepared, things which no one can really warn you about because they’re too busy being surprised themselves. Some days it seems like the plainest truth is we’re all just making it up as we go along, hoping we get it right, hoping no one suffers much when we don’t.

There are things we do to try and make the world a little bit better place, and some times those very nice things bring with them a price tag of sadness when they go away. The question, then, is whether or not the magic is worth the cost. It’s still early for me, but I’m thinking I know what my answer is.

Yes.

The Wings of History

No offense to Sir Winston Churchill, but history isn’t just written by the victors. The fact of the matter is we all have our histories. You, me – everyone around us carries with them at all times the accumulation of their lived days. Some of those days are memorable for some reason – the excitement of undefiled joy, the depths of immense pain – but even the unremarkable days build up what we call our life.

Often, we are uncomfortable when people want to walk us back, take us through their history. My family is experiencing something of that tension right now; my wife is currently leading the research into some of her family history, and we’re finding that no person is fully good or bad. The same is true of history. There’s always something of both to be found if we’re willing to look fairly.

I read this the other day, and it gave me the courage to continue thinking about my own past and the things I often remember but don’t explore for fear of upsetting someone. These are the words of Frederick Buechner, from his book Telling Secrets:

I am inclined to believe that God’s chief purpose in giving us memory is to enable us to go back in time so that if we didn’t play those roles right the first time round, we can still have another go at it now. We cannot undo our old mistakes or their consequences any more than we can erase old wounds that we have both suffered and inflicted, but through the power that memory gives us of thinking, feeling, imagining our way back through time we can at long last finally finish with the past in the sense of removing its power to hurt us and other people and to stunt our growth as human beings.

The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.

I know now, as an adult, that the people who surround me are themselves highly complex and equally as possessed of memories and experiences similar to mine. I know now, as an adult, that things which happened to me as a child were also happening to the people with whom I interacted. Indeed, none of us have histories that are solo performances. The other people entwined in our memories have their own versions of the same events.

What gives me a sense of peace is Buechner’s assertion that “instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.” My past – your past – does not have to be a weight.

It can be wings, if you’re willing.

I write so much about what happens in my life – what has happened in my life – as a way of making sense, of interpreting the movements of history so I can be a better man, better husband, better father; but also so I can leave the world a better place. Even as I go back, I find the familiar villains from my childhood weren’t necessarily villains at all, at least, not in the classic sense; rarely are people wholly evil, even if that’s what I remember. In fact, I find myself more and more frequently wondering just how many people have slotted me as their villain; because there have been times in my life where that title would fit like a tailored suit.

I’m learning that with history, as with so many other things in life, there has to be a sense of grace for the people around you. All I can hope is that as I learn to extend grace, others will extend it to me.

Imagine what a difference that might make.

The Year Without a Secret Santa Claus

It was my seventh grade year. Middle school – that time in a young man’s life when everything revolves around going unnoticed. At least, that’s the way I remembered it. You kept your head down, closed your eyes, and prayed to God that no one noticed you’re alive, because if they did, they’d likely remember you’re a colossal nerd and they’d make fun of you. Or worse.

It’s not often that a young man dreams of being Sue Storm, but my seventh grade year certainly was one of those times.

Up until November, my plan for complete avoidance of all human contact had worked. Nobody paid attention to me, nobody picked on me, nobody remembered my name, let alone that I was small, skinny, and liked to draw and read comic books. But that all changed just before Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to draw names,” my teacher announced, “and whomever you draw, you’ll be their Secret Santa.”

I don’t remember whose name I drew. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything about this at all except for the fact that, on the last day of school before Christmas break, in the middle of our class holiday party, I was the only kid who didn’t receive a gift.

My Secret Santa stiffed me.

I didn’t cry, though I felt like it. I knew what tears would do: draw attention to the fact I was an utter loser. So I simply sat at my desk in shame and ate my candy. Eventually one or two kids came by to stare at my nothing. I think one of them even tried to apologize on my Secret Santa’s behalf. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I think maybe they knew the identity of my Secret Shamer. I do recall my teacher came by and tried to say something comforting to me, even promising to make up for my loss when we returned from break (she did not).

But mostly I remember feeling like an outcast, an unworthy, unloved hunk of human disgrace who not only didn’t get a present but probably didn’t deserve one anyway.

I can’t say it didn’t affect me – its been over decades since it happened and I can still revisit the mind of the little boy seated at my desk that day. I remember the loneliness. I remember the embarrassment. But I also remember thinking very deeply about what might compel someone to be so cruel to a classmate, especially a classmate who never did anyone any harm in any way.

Why would someone hate me so much for no reason?

I still wonder about that, especially when I read stories like the Peshawar massacre or Ferguson. I wonder what it is inside some human souls that makes them seethe with so much disdain and disregard for the life of another.

25 years removed from that middle school classroom, and I’m still searching for answers.

Vacation Bible Old School

ImageLast night I came pretty dang close to time traveling. All that was missing was either the Doctor and the TARDIS, or Doc Brown and his DeLorean. It was so surreal, I had to write about it.

See, I took my kids to Vacation Bible School at my grandmother’s church, Rosebud Baptist, over on Knight Circle. It’s a great church of a couple hundred people, led by their inexhaustible pastor, Dr. Lloyd Stancil. My grandmother has called it home for the last twelve years, and while we’ve visited with her from time to time, last night was the first occasion my kids have had to really get involved. This week, Rosebud is hosting Kingdom Chronicles VBS nightly from 6:30-9:00, all visitors welcome. And if last night is any indication, it’s going to be awesome.

My kids loved it. The theme is knights and dragons, and the message is being able to stand strong against the evil things in the world. One of the men in the church built a styrofoam castle slap in the middle of the church’s Fellowship Hall, an elaborate piece of construction that not only has detailed brick walls and parapets, but an inner court big enough for fifty kids to sit down and learn a lesson. There are other great details all over the place, too, including a woman dressed in full Medieval period costume.

But what my kids came home talking about was the fact that the games were led by Pastor Lloyd, and included throwing water balloons at him. That was all they wanted to talk about: the pastor was willing to get messy like the rest of the kids.

What I came away with was a strong sense of nostalgia, of going back to my own childhood, when I attended church in a little red-brick building, and laughed my way through VBS on lovely summer nights. Listening to my kids giggle and scream with delight, I could taste the Kool-Aid from my long ago years; hear the soft voice of Miss Essie as she delivered her Chalk Talk bible stories; feel the stickiness of the glue as we tried to get our popsicle stick birdhouses put together.

Last night I sat on the front porch of Rosebud Baptist Church and felt like the veil between this world and the next had dropped. Suddenly, I was surrounded by ghosts who had made my childhood special; I was immersed in memories that made me glad my children were getting just a taste of what I knew.

See, my kids have never known a small church. Ella’s only seven, Jon’s four, and they’ve only ever gone to church with over 400 people. The VBS’s they’ve been too usually run around 200 kids, with 70-plus workers. And while they’ve always loved VBS, they’ve never had the kind of intimacy they experienced last night. As Ella said, “I liked the fact that the groups were small. It made it fun.”

There’s something about moments like last night that defy description. The weather was perfect, the kids were laughing, the adults were happy and relaxed. My grandmother was all smiles because her great-grandkids were running around her church, loving every minute, and for just a moment she got to go back in time a little bit too.

The only thing missing was Pop, my grandfather, who passed away in 2011 after a long illness. He loved Rosebud Church, and they loved him. Several people referenced him last night when they spoke to me, telling me just how beloved he was among those folks, how much he would’ve loved watching the kids and VBS. It was a bittersweet note, but one full of truth. Pop would’ve loved every minute, maybe even joined Pastor Lloyd in some water balloon mischief.

But later, as I sat on the porch listening, remembering, feeling transported to another place, I felt something else. That Pop was with me, near me, watching and laughing with the rest of the kids. I felt it so strongly, I almost reached out for his hand. It wasn’t there, of course, but such was the power of last night, when the past and present collided in a way that made connection between the two palpable.

It was a magical evening.

Hopefully, I can recapture it tonight. Ella and Jon have already gotten dressed for VBS and have been asking me when it’ll be time to go. I know MawMaw is looking forward to it as well. Heck, I’m looking forward to a little Vacation Bible Old School myself.

If you’ve got nothing going on, why don’t you join us?

Childhood 2.0

ImageYesterday my children allowed me to do something that I’d dreamed about for years. Simply because they exist, I was allowed to walk through the right field gate of Turner Field, out onto the turf of the Braves field, and stand in the bright afternoon sun. Suprisingly, it was everything I thought it could be. Up close, the grass was greener than on television, the dirt somehow browner, and the smells…

Well, let’s just say we’re not missing anything by NOT having smell-o-vision.

We were on the field because someone, some genius in the Braves organization, realized that it cost the organization absolutely nothing and garnered them all kinds of goodwill by allowing kids in attendance on Sunday afternoons to run the bases after the game was over. Why no one thought of this back when I was a kid baffles me; perhaps it was because Atlanta Braves baseball wasn’t quite the destination/event back then. If you remember the old Launching Pad (Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) then you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t remember FulCo, then take the ugliest abomination of American architecture that you can think of and infest it with more ugliness. Then multiply it by five.

Congratulations! You’ve now come up with the genius design that dominated the American sports landscape in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s – the dull, lifeless, repeatable round stadium that appeared in such sports crazy cities as Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cincinatti. Or, basically every mid-sized American city who couldn’t afford to build something better.

To be fair, this was back before people realized that aesthetics matter when it comes to sports. I don’t know why, but the idea during the latter 20th century seemed to be that space was purely functional; that how the space made you feel, or appeared, was of no consequence. In some places that idea was born out by the play of the teams – Pittsburgh, for example, destroyed people in Three River Stadium. But here in Atlanta, the connection between human consciousness and environmental effect was writ large: FulCo killed the players’ will to win.

Heck, on some nights, it killed the fans’ will to live.

But I still dreamed of patrolling the ground there. I was small, couldn’t hit a ball much beyond second base, but I was fast and quick and the best fielder in my Little League. My aunt and uncle had season tickets back in those days (so you know my family LOVED baseball), which meant that I got to go to my fair share of games. I remember vividly seeing Dale Murphy and Claudell Washington cover the outfield. Because I played second base, Glenn Hubbard became my hero; I loved him so much that I switched jersey numbers from Murph’s iconic 3 to Hubb’s 17.

Sorry, Murph.

Even after a summer on the All-Star team killed my love for playing (it was 1986; we won the Dixie League State Title that year) I still loved going to the games and dreaming of being on the field. Other kids got to walk the grounds because of their youth group, or ball team, or because their parents somehow possessed a special kind of magic that allowed them access to people and places denied us mortals, and I always felt the burn of jealousy deep within. It seemed unfair.

It wasn’t, of course, but try telling that to a young boy. And of course, the fact that I’d never walked the field in my life made yesterday that much greater. The first time I stepped onto the field of my childhood dreams, I did so with Ella and Jon and Rachel, not to mention my brother and nephew, and my dad. We all walked – simply walked – the warning track from right field to just past the Braves dugout, at which point the parents were diverted into the stands as the kids were directed towards homeplate.

Given how some of us adults were talking in the line, that was a good move Turner Field. Watching some over-exuberant adult wipeout a couple of tots with a head-first slide into homeplate would’ve been sad, and watching the security guards escort him off to jail would’ve been sadder.

Plus, I don’t think my wife would’ve bailed me out.

I watched as my nephew, Joey, rounded the bases, followed by his cousins, Aidan, Parker, Jon and Ella, plus several of his friends from church. The whole game experience (including pre-game lunch at the Varsity) was for his sixth birthday. I think I can safely say it was a magical experience for him, because it certainly was for me. It reminded me of some of the most powerful and magical things from my own childhood, and that I still connect strongly with some of those things even in my adult life.

But greater than that was re-learning that there are some things better experienced through your children. Seeing Ella and Jon run those bases was a treat for me; I recorded it on my iPhone, and it will be a video that I sneak a peak at from time to time as a subtle callback to the wonder of childhood joy. And when they came off the field and up the aisle, holding certificates and t-shirts that said “I ran the bases at Turner Field!”, there was no missing the expression on their faces.

Magic.

It was one of the best days I’ve had in a very long time. I think I took around 200 pictures, of everything from the grass to the kids to the seats to the benches in the dugout, and only posted half of them to Facebook. Guess I just wanted everyone to share in how special the day truly was to me. Not only did we get to celebrate my nephew, but we got to spend time together as a family and update a vivid memory from my childhood: parents and children enjoying a ballgame, laughing and sharing and loving every minute. It was Childhood 2.0.

And it was a blessing.