On a perfectly ordinary Wednesday night in April, during the 6 minute commute from our home to church, the announcement came abruptly from the backseat.
"Mom, I have a lot of questions about Santa Claus."
P has started this conversation 4-5 times in the last 18 months. Each time I assured him I would answer his questions honestly, but I wanted him to be certain he was ready to know.
"The answers to these questions take a lot of the magic and wonder away. Are you sure you are ready for all the mystery to be gone?" (His reply a couple of months ago was hysterical. "I think I can tell where this is headed. Can we wait and talk about it again when I am twelve?")
Ryland & I have shaken our heads time and again at the fact this has all gone on so long. We are a family that frequently talks about hard things: the birds and bees, race relations, poverty, social justice...and yet, this is a subject our children have been hesitant to explore. So, we have let them lead us in terms of readiness...trusting we would know when the time came.
Last night, there was a different tone to P's inquisition. I gulped with the recognition that it was indeed time. And, of course, his brother and sister were in the car, we were running late and my husband was out of state.
I told him I would answer his questions when we got to church. Repeating my reminder "I will always tell you the truth. I just want you to consider whether or not you really want to know," I parked, called my husband on speaker phone and offered any child who wanted to the opportunity to leave the conversation to go ahead into church.
P looked relieved. He's been trying to work out the details and logistics of Santa for years. R's eyes were wild with curiosity and a tinge of panic. I am not sure he had ever considered that there might be more to the story. K was on the fence. She wouldn't make eye contact. The look on her face was uncomfortable. She started to exit the car, but changed her mind.
There inside my Suburban on the curb outside First Presbyterian Church a rite of passage unceremoniously occurred. With the rapt attention of 6 eyes and 3 hearts we talked about the truth of Santa...that there IS magic and wonder in a game that millions of people join together to play where the point is giving without getting any credit. Their dark brown eyes lit up with a new excitement over being old enough to be trusted with the secret.
"I hope we get foster kids at Christmas. I can't wait to help make Christmas full of surprises for a little kid."
As the waves of knowing passed over them, realizations happened and questions came rapid fire.
"So, wait, that time when..."
"OH! So you..."
"I wondered why..."
"And the Easter Bunny..."
"...and the tooth fairy..."
There were giggles and grins..and a couple of admissions that revealed I wasn't always as slick as I thought I had been.
"This year I saw a text about..."
"One time when I was looking for something I found..."
Honesty was cleansing and cathartic. I had dreaded this day for a decade. Would they feel lied to? Respond with anger? Would they question their faith if I revealed this had been a game?
But the conversation was actually bonding not dividing. Dialogue had put us on the same team. They were old enough to 'get it.' It's not a trick, it is a tradition that uses wonder and fun to teach how amazing it is to give without concern for getting credit.
K observed, "You and Dad really worked hard and we never knew to tell you thank you."
And then, after a strong emphasis on the fact that parents, not other kids, should be the bearer of all this news, I sent them into church. After recapping with my husband via phone, I exhaled and went to the grocery store.
When I picked them up from church an hour later there were a couple more questions, but the mood was light. They scurried in the house and turned on the Wii. There was laughter as they started dancing hip hop. I snapped a picture in my mind then on my phone.
And last night as I made my 'tuck in' rounds and checked on every little heart individually it was clear it was ok. I couldn't help but smile as I was turning out R's lamp and he looked up sleepily and asked, "...reindeer?" I pursed my lips and slowly shook my head no. He grinned wistfully.
Growing up is indeed bittersweet, but this memory is being filed away as mostly sweet.