How can you make Christmas magical for a child who is between reality and borderline belief at Christmas? That was the dilemma facing us. Christopher, our son, at 9 years of age, still showed all the signs of an innocent child who was waiting for Santa Claus to come but at the same time was asking “testing” questions that needed to be answered gingerly.
It was going to be a white Christmas in Montreal that year. He still wanted to look at the downtown Eaton’s store toy displays and even to sit on Santa’s knee — maybe for the last time.
My parents arrived a few days ahead of the holidays and the Christmas food preparations swung into action. My father concentrated on the Hungarian Christmas meal consisting of Wiener schnitzel, mashed potatoes, red cabbage and cucumber salad. My mother was in charge of the Christmas cookies and the Yule log. The gifts were already bought — Christopher had asked for and was getting a complete N scale electric train set. My dad, who himself was a train enthusiast, insisted on getting the engine and the dining car — which two items were already part of the set we purchased — so we removed ours to return after Christmas.
On Christmas Eve the kitchen was humming with activity, the scrumptious aromas of the meal and vanilla cookies filled the house. The decorated Christmas tree, lit from floor to ceiling, stood in the corner of the living room waiting for Santa’s gifts. The Hungarian tradition is for Santa to arrive on Christmas Eve. My dad kept looking out the window, with Christopher leaning over his shoulder to see if they could see Santa’s sleigh. He kept warning us that when Santa seems to be getting closer we must go outside for a walk to give him time to deliver his gifts. My mother lagged behind to put the toys under the tree then quietly joined us for the walk. Christopher was unaware of her delayed presence, chattering about everyone’s great outdoor decorations and about Santa’s heavy sleigh full of goodies.
My dad suddenly stopped to listen, tilting his ear toward the sky, claiming he just heard the jingle of Santa’s sleigh bells — he hurried us to return home. Christopher ran ahead and burst into the living room. The suspense of walking, waiting outside and then seeing all the gifts placed under the tree was magical — it took his breath away. He looked at the mountains of brightly wrapped gift boxes and felt almost afraid to touch them, should Santa still appear for a last minute drop off. He was in a euphoric state, ripping open each gift box containing his electric train set, one by one. He set up the tracks and started placing the cars on them when he suddenly realized that two did not fit.
Unknown to us, my parents had bought the wrong HO scale model instead of the N scale for the engine and the dining car. Christopher did not understand how Santa could bring the wrong ones and worried that maybe they were delivered to someone else. Knowing that we had the right scale pieces upstairs we explained that Santa must have made a mistake. If he did, he would definitely come back during the night and switch them. Christopher was upset and went to bed worried and disappointed. During the night we replaced the engine and dining car, all wrapped under the Christmas tree.
It was an early morning for all of us the next day. Christopher was up at 5am — nearly falling down the stairs to look under the tree. He was beside himself with joy, his face beaming when he found the right scale models. He kept on saying, “Thank you Santa!” then exclaimed out of breath, “ Just wait until I get back to school and tell all those disbelievers that there really is a Santa Claus — I have the proof! I know everything was closed last night so you could not have gone out to buy the new train cars.”
We let him play with and enjoy his electric train set on Christmas and Boxing Day but realized, with a heavy heart, that the moment of truth had arrived. We couldn’t bear the thought of someone at school teasing him about his faith in Santa. My husband sat down with him next morning and explained how children’s imagination keeps alive the belief that Santa Claus brings the gifts and how we, as parents, play our part by fulfilling their wishes. He listened intently and became very quiet — disbelief and disappointment were written all over his face. It was so hard to see him struggle to process the information and make some sense of what he had heard. He was crushed. So were we.
I can still recall my own feelings of betrayal, anger and disillusionment when, as a child, I found out the harsh truth about Santa. I hoped deep in my heart that it wasn’t true. Until we have children we all grow up mourning the loss of magic at Christmas and the shattering of childhood innocence.