Stephen stood in the doorway, watching his little girl kneeling before the Christmas tree. The sparkling array of colorful lights cast an etherial glow around her brown hair. Daddy’s little angel, that’s what Jane looked like. From her Christmas light halo to her long white nightgown, she fit the picture beautifully.
He moved to take a step toward her, wanting to share one brief moment of her innocent anticipation of the coming holiday, but noticed her hands balled into fists at her side and stopped. She only made fists when she was angry. It was the first tell she’d developed as a small child. Her bright red face and wailing lips had faded as she’d gained the self-control and composure of a ten-year-old, but her fists had remained the same.
Jane’s head was bowed low as she examined one of the ornaments. A Santa ornament. Stephen took a long slow breath and closed his eyes, trying to think of what he was going to do. He had hoped she wouldn’t learn the truth about Santa for at least another year.
Before he had a chance to compose an explanation, Jane stood and turned, freezing when she saw him. Her eyes sparkled with a combination of the moist residue riming her lower lids and the reflection of the lights from the Christmas tree. She watched him silently, her brow creased in what looked like disappointment and betrayal. His stomach tied in knots at the sight. This was going to be a lot harder than he’d expected.
“Can we talk?” He asked, gesturing for her to take a seat on the couch.
Jane nodded and moved to the overstuffed sofa, her lips pursed in a frustrated line.
Stephen took her place at the tree, pulling the Santa ornament from the sagging limb then sitting next to her. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“No,” she answered, shaking her head and staring blankly at the coffee table in front of them.
Stephen held up the ornament, watching the carved wooden Santa twist and twirl on the end of its silver string. The little Kris Kringle had been his favorite holiday decoration as a child. He ran his thumb over its chin, the white-washed beard a few soft rubs away from oblivion.
“I wonder if your problem might have something to do with this.” He held the ornament between them, and noticed, for the first time how the wooden figure seemed to hang limply from its string. He imagined how the tiny Santa must look to Jane. An overused decoration that was as worn out as the lie it was carved from.
Jane’s eyes refilled with tears, the pain of a crushed childhood dream running down her cheeks. “Hannah said Santa isn’t real. She says you and mom are lying.”
“Who’s Hannah?” Stephen asked, cupping the ornament in his hands. He wished bitterly that Hannah hadn’t been so selfish, spoiling what he had hoped would be her last magical Christmas.
“A girl from school,” Jane said, sniffing. She ran her sleeve across her wet cheeks then under her nose.
“So, Hannah from school told you that Santa isn’t real?” Stephen studied the red sack slung over the wooden Santa’s shoulder. It bulged with dozens of small lumps, all different shapes and sizes. “Did she tell you we were lying?”
Jane nodded, “Yeah.”
“And you believe her?” He studied her carefully, ready to weigh more than the words in her response.
“I don’t know.” She leaned back into the couch, her head sinking into the cushion leaving her staring at the ceiling.
“Do you think your mother and I would lie to you?”
“Maybe.” She lifted her hands and let them flop back onto her lap as she turned to face him. “Hannah says you lied about Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny.”
“We don’t believe in the Easter Bunny,” Stephen said. The Easter bunny was one candy-filled diversion he wasn’t willing to perpetuate on such a sacred holiday.
“I know. But what about Santa and the tooth fairy?” Jane sat forward, her eyes watching him with an earnestness they had never held before.
Stephen placed the carved Santa on the coffee table and sunk back into the couch, turning sideways and tucking his foot under his knee so he could face her. “Let me ask you a question.” He hesitated for a moment before continuing. “What made Santa so special to you?”
Jane’s brows furrowed as she concentrated on the Christmas tree. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do,” Stephen said, nodding. “Just think about it.”
Jane was silent for a moment, her focus shifting from the tree to her father. “Well…because he brings presents.”
Stephen failed to suppress a small chuckle. He quickly cleared his throat, cutting the laugh short. “Is it only the presents that make him special?”
“No,” Jane said quickly, shaking her head in defense of her answer.
“Okay. What else makes him special?”
“He brings toys to everybody.” She pressed her index fingers together, as if getting ready to count off a list. “He has reindeer that fly and a magic sleigh…”
Stephen watched as an innocent excitement returned to her face, her eager voice making a case for a man she no longer believed in.
“… he’s magic—” She faltered in the middle of her list, her hands balling into fists again. “Santa isn’t real. Magic isn’t real.”
“Magic isn’t real?” he asked in a stunned, sober tone. It was hard enough to watch her discover the truth about Santa, but he couldn’t bear to let her cast aside the gift of magic.
“Magic is for babies,” Jane retorted. She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him with a stern gaze that left him feeling as if the role of parent and child had been reversed.
Stephen fished a small coin from his pocket, careful to keep it hidden. He slid it between two fingers before reaching behind her ear. “Then what’s this?” he asked, producing a penny. He let his mouth hang open in surprise, as if the penny had magically appeared and he had merely rescued it.
“That’s just a stupid trick. I already know how you do it.” She scoffed, her lips turned down in a disgusted manner that convinced him he was glimpsing the teenager to come. She pulled the penny from between his fingers and replicated the magic trick using his ear.
“See.” She presented him with the copper coin.
“You used to think it was magic.” He took the penny from her waiting fingers and placed it on the coffee table next to the wooden Santa. “What changed?”
“You showed me how to hide the penny between my fingers.” Her words sounded like an accusation, as if he had been the one to spoil magic tricks and Santa, all on the same night.
Stephen looked at his knuckles, picturing the day he’d taught Jane how to hide the penny between her fingers. She had been excited to learn and even more eager to show her friends. Why couldn’t this discovery be the same? Why couldn’t she see the magic of Santa as the gift he had always intended it to be, not some frivolous lie? Somehow, he had to find a way to show her that there was more to Old Saint Nick than reindeer and presents. “Do you think,” he said, grabbing the penny and handing it to her, “that I lied when I said I was magic?”
“No,” Jane held her fists stiffly in her lap, leaving the penny untouched.
“Why not?” He extended the coin further toward her.
“Because you were….I don’t know. But you weren’t lying.”
He loved the way she defended him, as if his honor was at stake. “I’m glad you don’t think I lied. But what’s the point of a fake magic trick? Why would I persuade you to believe in something that wasn’t real?”
Jane rolled her eyes and forced out an agitated breath, “I don’t know.”
Stephen let her answer hang in the silent room. It was true, convincing a child magic tricks were real did feel harmless, fun even. Yet somehow that standard didn’t hold true for Santa. Why?
He returned the penny to the table and picked up the ornament. “Well, I know why. It’s part of the magic of childhood. For a brief moment in our lives we get the chance to believe whatever we want to believe. We get to believe that reindeer can fly, that there’s a toy shop in the North Pole filled with elves who spend their entire lives preparing for Christmas. We get to believe that a chubby old man can fit down a chimney and that somehow, with the help of his magic sleigh, he can fly to every single house, all over the world, in the space of one night.” Stephen’s voice softened. He brushed a lock of hair from her eye and whispered, “Only a child can believe in things like that.”
“But it’s a lie.” Jane leaned away from his touch, her voice filled with longing.
Stephen recognized her yearning. He had felt the same way when he learned the secret about Santa. Christmas hadn’t been the same since. It had taken him decades to recapture even a hint of the magical feeling that had permeated the Christmases of his youth. That was the true magic of Christmas. It was a feeling, not a toy. That’s what she needed to learn. “Jane, Santa isn’t a lie. Don’t you see? He’s a gift.”
“How can lying about Santa be a gift?”
“Your mother and I wanted you to believe in Santa because, in a way, he is real. And I don’t mean he’s real because your Mom and I pretend to be him. If that’s all it was then we would be lying.” Stephen rose from the couch and returned to the tree. He reached deep within the thick boughs to the heart and removed another ornament. He held it in his hand for a moment, watching the Christmas lights reflect in the simple golden image. He sat back down, the fresh scent of pine accompanying him as if the ornament itself were the source of the holiday fragrance.
“By allowing you to believe in Santa, we were letting you believe in something impossible. Something wonderful but completely impossible.” Stephen held his breath and said a quick prayer. He wanted to find the right words to help Jane feel what he was saying. Not just hear it but feel it. If she could feel it, then the transition he hoped she was about to make would hold special meaning. “Did you ever stop and wonder why Santa was so generous? Why an old man would spend his entire life giving gifts to children all over the world? Children he doesn’t even know.”
“I guess.” Jane’s brows crumpled in confusion.
“And did you ever come up with an answer?”
Jane searched some unseen corner of the room for a moment before she responded. “Because he loves children.”
Stephen smiled and nodded in encouragement. “I’ve always believed that Santa spent his whole life giving to others because the real gift he was giving wasn’t toys and candy, but a feeling. A feeling so elusive most adults are incapable of capturing it. He gives presents to children hoping he can touch their hearts. Then—” he opened his hand, producing the ornament he had pulled from the tree, “—when we are older and have lost the magic we will recognize the feeling when we find it again.”
He extended the ornament, holding it next to her hands. “When we find Him.”
Jane picked up the ornament and cradled it in her small hands. A simple, golden silhouette of the nativity rested quietly in her fingers.
Stephen followed her gaze and when her eyes fell on the inscription carved into the bottom of the ornament he read it aloud, “The real magic is His love.”
He let his voice fade so that she could absorb the words. When she looked up, her eyes were glistening.
“If you can believe in Santa and everything that goes along with him, then you can believe that 2000 years ago a baby was born in a stable. And you can believe that this baby wasn’t just a regular baby, but the literal Son of God. And if you can believe that this baby…” Stephen’s voice caught. He cleared his throat quickly not bothering to wipe away the tear trickling down his cheek. He pointed tenderly at the golden silhouette of the Savior. “If you can believe that this baby is the Son of God then you can believe that not only did he live a perfect life for us, but he atoned for our sins. He endured every imaginable pain, both physical and emotional, so that he could care for us. He suffered in the garden of Gethsemane so that in our most desperate times of trouble and pain and sickness he would know how to help us. Every feeling we have ever had, He has felt. Every agony we will ever experience, He has endured.”
Stephen wiped away a tear running down Jane’s cheek then dried his own. “We celebrate Christmas because Jesus was born. And because he was born we will be saved. Far too often people get caught up in all the presents and the goodies and they forget about the Savior. And that’s unfortunate because when that happens, the feeling Santa is trying to share with us gets lost.”
A tingling rush of chills swept across his skin and he knew, in that moment, that he had found the answer he’d prayed for. The elusive spirit of Christmas he was hoping his daughter would feel had settled into his heart, warming him with the comforting feeling of peace. He watched Jane’s face, searching for some sign that she felt it too.
It took several minutes for Jane to speak, and when she did her voice was barely audible. “Dad, does this mean I won’t get presents anymore?”
Her answer startled him. “No, dear. You’ll still get presents.” Stephen tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. Was that what all this was about? Presents?
Jane’s face relaxed. “Thanks, Dad.”
“You’re welcome,” he whispered. He gave her a kiss on the forehead and watched her leave the room.
“Uhh,” he moaned, rubbing his hands across his face. Her response to his explanation was troubling. Had he failed to teach her the importance of the Savior at Christmastime? Was it possible that he had taught her to worship presents instead?
Suddenly, he felt like a failure. All the years of trying to mix the magic of Santa with the gift of the Savior had backfired. Obviously all she cared about were the toys.
But could he blame her? What child could possibly see past the twinkling lights and shiny new toys into the humble manger? How could something as simple and tender as the birth of Jesus compete with all the excitement of the commercial holiday?
Stephen felt sick as he realized that maybe he had been wrong all along. Maybe it was impossible to celebrate the birth of the Savior and perpetuate the myth of Santa. Maybe there wasn’t room for both.
But that didn’t make sense. Wasn’t Santa’s generosity the perfect example of love and service? He’d always thought so. The undeniable warmth he’d felt during his explanation seemed proof that the two could co-exist. The feeling was palpable, almost a tangible presence in the room. Surely she had felt it too.
The muffled shuffle of feet on the carpet caught his attention and he looked up. Jane was standing in the doorway, the nativity ornament dangling from her fingers.
“What about the tooth fairy?” she asked, handing him the golden decoration.
“What about the tooth fairy?” He said, retrieving it from her grasp.
“Do I still get money from the tooth fairy?”
“Yes.” He nodded, unable to manage the sinking feeling in his gut. “You still get money for your teeth.”
“Good,” she said, standing still, her head perked to the side as if she had one more question.
“What?” Stephen couldn’t imagine what more she could ask. How many childhood fantasies did she have?
“Why do you pretend there’s a tooth fairy?” Her hands rested expectantly on her hips, the corners of her mouth on the verge of a frown.
Stephen shook his head, that was the last question he’d expected. “Because the promise of a couple quarters is all it takes for you rug-rats to find the courage to let me pull your teeth.”
“Oh,” Jane said, surprise evident on her face. She moved to leave but hesitated, her eyes filled with something he couldn’t identify. “Thanks, Dad.”
“For what?” He was growing even more confused by her behavior.
“For Santa.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, squeezed tightly and whispered in his ear. “For using Santa to teach me about the real magic.”
“The real magic?” His voice croaked. Had she felt it after all? Did she really understand?
Jane grabbed him by the shoulders and stared tenderly into his eyes. “The real magic of Christmas is believing.”
Stephen felt a lump rising in his throat. She was right. The real magic of Christmas wasn’t found behind a red suit or under a Christmas tree. It went deeper than that.
The real magic of Christmas lay in our ability to believe.