I wanted Santa to be real to my daughters forever, not only when they were small, but always. I accomplished this by teaching them about the original Santa Klaus, St. Nicholas, Friend of Children and of the Poor, Master of Sneaky Good Deeds.
As a Saint he is forever accessible to us who believe. Very useful in this Santa catechesis was the little movie, Nicholas, the Boy Who Became Santa.* My girls loved it and they watched it over and over and so did the neighborhood kids who were always at our house. The movie shows the boy Nicholas giving away his things to the poor, buying slaves their freedom, sneaking food and gifts to children and the poor in the middle of the night, always remaining anonymous.
St. Nicholas, who had an intense devotion to the Christ Child and a special love for children, became a bishop in what is now Turkey. He was persecuted by the Romans who burned down his church and arrested him. He spent years in prison, even sharing his bread and water with his fellow prisoners who weren’t particularly nice to him. Eventually he was set free and was able to re-join his fellow Christians.
I incorporated devotion to St. Nicholas into our family celebration of Advent and Christmas, having the girls write him a letter on his feast day, Dec. 6 ( a letter in return for which, he always left some simple treats, some change, and possibly some glitter.) They would write to St. Nicholas about what they wanted him to pray for them about in their lives. I always had them include three virtues they wanted him to obtain from God for them. (This is where The Family Virtues Guide came in handy.)** Some of these letters the girls wrote were very beautiful and of course some were hilarious!
During the course of Advent and the Christmas season, we would attempt to imitate St. Nicholas by doing sneaky good deeds as much as we could. One year I remember we put a bunch of Christmas roses in our red wagon and stayed up late, going out to leave roses and glitter or some toys for the kids at each house on our street. As people did in honor of St. Nicholas after his death, we sometimes left a note that said, “St. Nicholas.” As you can imagine, this was great fun.
Of particularly fond memory is a Christmas we drove around to houses where people struggled with poverty. I remember how we silently giggled as we sprinkled glitter all over porches, leaving presents and food and red rose petals. We laughed about it on the way home in the car.
The girls understood that in this way we were being helpers of St. Nicholas just like anybody is when they give sneaky gifts in honor of Jesus’ birthday the way St. Nicholas did. So my kids transitioned slowly to understanding that the adults in their family did this same thing for them each Christmas… as helpers of St. Nicholas who loved the Christ child, loved children and the poor. So that’s how it all worked! However he stayed real to them as a Saint and a friend. The legend could grow up with the kids.
This was a very good way to learn what Christmas gifts are about, and who Santa really is. Sometimes there were challenges, however.
One Christmas morning, my wide eyed little girls ran in the back door yelling, “MAMA! St. Nicolas SMOKES! And he DRINKS, TOO!”
My dad and brother had been over in the middle of the night, helping St. Nicholas with a trampoline in the back yard for the girls. Apparently they had left cigarette butts and a few beer bottles around as well.
Looking at my daughters, I tried not to laugh. No laughing. I had to think.
I thought of several possible answers in the midst of their shocked clamor.
It was the helpers? Should I bring elves into this? It’s Christmas, give Santa a break? It was Uncle Mark and Grandaddy? (No, not that, not yet.) I looked down at their horrified little faces and shrugged. “Well! Now we know what to leave St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve from now on instead of the hot coco and cookies. Next time we will leave him cigarettes and a beer!”