This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Register, the newspaper for the Diocese of Nashville, in December, 2003. The events described below were the inspiration for the creation of The Secret of the Santa Box.
Every December while our children were young, we took them to the mall to get a photograph taken with Santa Claus. On the way home, we often fielded a sleigh full of questions.
“Where does Santa live? How does he know where we live? If he’s so fat, how does he get down our chimney? What does he do at houses without chimneys?” The first few questions were answered cautiously. Soon we handled each one with a smooth, experienced tone.
Looking back on those days, we cherished “The Secret of Santa Claus,” that precious white lie parents tell their young children to keep an air of mystery and wonderment in the Christmas season. We guarded The Secret at every turn so that none of them would learn the truth. To us, The Secret was an important part of their childhood and vital to their (and our) enjoyment of the Christmas season.
(Before we go any farther, if you are a parent still keeping The Secret, make plans now as to how you will hide this article from your children.)
During those Decembers, our house was flooded with their wonder and excitement, a veritable fountain of youth in which we parents could bathe. We let their innocence wash over us and cleanse us of the day’s harsh realities and responsibilities.
We often thought that if The Secret could be kept for “just one more year,” it would make this Christmas so much better. We placed pieces of ribbon near the fireplace, put half-eaten cookies back on the plate, and made footprints in the ashes, all to keep the idea of Santa real in their young minds.
But despite our best intentions, at some point children will start to figure out that their parents’ explanations don’t quite make sense (likely around the third, fourth, or fifth grade). They talk to their friends, compare Christmas gifts and ideas about Santa, and little by little, The Secret evaporates as the truth becomes known.
Facing the inevitable, my wife and I decided to tell The Secret to our children ourselves, one by one, as soon as they were old enough to understand. We didn’t want them to learn the truth on the school playground, or worse, by catching us climbing the basement stairs with “Santa’s gifts” in our hands. We wanted to tell them in a way that would preserve the spirit of Christmas even after they outgrew the innocence of their childhood.
More importantly, we wanted to teach them about the true meaning of Christmas and the wonderful gift God gave us that holy night in Bethlehem.
So one evening in early December, after the two younger brothers had fallen asleep, Linda and I nodded to each other and said to our oldest, “Kristin, there’s something we need to tell you. Come back with us to our bedroom.”
She looked at us curiously, but followed us back and sat on the edge of our bed.
“Kristin,” I said, weighing each word very carefully, “your mother and I think it’s time for you to know the truth – the truth about Santa Claus.”
She didn’t say anything, but we could read her face and see the wheels turning inside. She watched as I climbed a small stepladder in our closet. I reached up and pushed the attic panel out of the way, revealing a small opening to the attic above. Kristin didn’t know this area existed, so this secret compartment added wonder to the moment.
Reaching into the opening, I pulled down a dark brown, wooden box. I handed it to Kristin and said “Be careful with this, don’t open it yet.” She looked with amazement at the box and held it carefully in her two small hands.
“Inside this box you will find out who Santa Claus really is,” we said.
She slowly opened the lid and found a royal purple cloth wrapped around an object. She picked up the bundle and gently unwrapped the cloth. Then she held up a hand mirror and saw her own reflection.
“Kristin, you are Santa Claus,” we said as we sat down beside her. “He lives in you, in me, your mother, even your brothers, though they don’t know it yet. He is the true spirit of Christmas that’s in each of us.
“When we become Santa Claus and give gifts to others at Christmas, we imitate God, the giver above, who gave us the ultimate Christmas gift: his son, Jesus Christ. We spread this same love and the spirit of Christmas to others through our gifts and the good deeds we do.”
My daughter’s hazel-blue eyes grew wide as she realized the full meaning of our words. This was the moment of understanding. We held our breath and asked ourselves, “Did we tell her the right way?”
Kristin stared at the mirror, and then said, “Can I help you be Santa this year to Connor and Tommy?” Linda and I smiled at each other, relieved and happy that we’d gotten our point across. “Yes, of course – that’s what Christmas is all about.”
So when it’s time to tell your child The Secret, don’t leave the task to others. Take the time to prepare a special memory. Use our idea, read The Secret of the Santa Box to your child, or develop your own special memory based upon your beliefs and family traditions. With a little bit of Christmas wonderment in the tale, your children will remember the moment and the message will never be forgotten.
Which is good, because the world always needs more Santas.
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Christopher Fenoglio and his wife Linda live in Nashville, Tennessee, where he serves as a music minister at St. Henry Catholic Church. Fenoglio loves to sing, especially Christmas music, “spreading cheer for all to hear.”