Christmas is my favorite holiday... after Halloween, of course. The snow. The trees. The abundant fanciness. Dressing up, getting gifts. What's not to love? Have I mentioned the trees?!
As a kid, I believed in Santa much longer than my friends and classmates. It was a combination of being innately gullible, my mom being fanatic about maintaining the illusion, and a dash of denial. I mean, who wants to stop believing in Santa, really? I vividly remember the moment that it ended for me: it was spring and I was sitting in the backseat of my mom's car with a friend, waiting to be driven to ballet practice. I had lost my last baby tooth earlier that day and was remarking how I was excited for the tooth fairy to leave me something but was also sad that it would be the last time. My friend turned to me and said "You realize that the tooth fairy isn't real, right?" to which I was all "Yeahhh, of course I know that! I just wasn't sure if you knew..." meanwhile my mind was whir-whir-whirring.... if the Tooth Fairy wasn't real.... then the Easter Bunny probably wasn't real.... then that meant Santa wasn't real! OMG!
Even after I learned Santa was a hoax, I continued to love Christmas, though. The trees, folks! The trees!!! The traditions changed, of course. I moved away to college and spent a few Christmases away from family. There was one year when, after setting out all the presents my mom had mailed to me on Christmas Eve, I stood back admiring the tree and realized "Hey... I can unwrap all those presents right now and no one would know!" and I stayed up until 2am doing just that. (Best Christmas Ever!)
Things change when you have kids, Christmas being prime among them. On our first Christmas after having Viola we put her to bed with the standard "Go to sleep and Santa will bring you presents!" line, then looked at each other as the realization dawned that, you know, Santa was us now. We had to leave presents! We were totally unprepared, to the point that not a single present under the tree that first Christmas was labelled from Santa (fortunately for us, babies can't read.)
After that first Santa#fail we discussed how we wanted to "do Christmas" as parents. My husband and I shared our own childhood traditions and fond memories. One thing that was very important to me was making Christmas, and Santa, as magical as possible for as long as possible. I started thinking about what my mom had done that had helped me to continue believing for so long... a few things came to mind: firstly, we always put carrots out on Christmas Eve and in the morning they'd be chewed up. (No person would go out in the snow in the middle of the night and eat half frozen carrots so, obviously, it could only be Reindeer.) Santa's presents were always wrapped in paper I'd never seen before with tags not in my mom's handwriting. And Santa brought so many presents... more than my mom could ever possibly afford. When the rumors started circulating in first grade that Santa might actually be your own parents, I immediately dismissed the idea because I knew my mom couldn't possibly afford the amount of presents that Santa brought. Whenever I asked her for something she told me she couldn't afford it and I should ask Santa instead.
We also asked our friends what had made them stop believing in Santa as kids, and we built our Santa tradition around not doing any of those things. The only exception being the pretending to be too poor to buy anything ruse. That just wasn't for me. But we found an alternate way to differentiated what Santa brings from what we buy.
Every family has their own unique Santa tradition and I think that's part of what makes Christmas my favorite holiday--- the ability to create your own mythology for a couple of years. I'd love to hear about the little things your family does in the comments below!
Meanwhile, here is how we do the Santa thing at our house:
#1: It all begins with a wish..
Letters to Santa are composed after Thanksgiving, while you're digesting all that turkey. Santa's Elves need a couple weeks to make the toys, after all. We are grateful for all the things we already have, and that Mommy and Daddy can afford to buy toys, and so we only ask Santa for three things. Santa needs to save his magic for the kids who have less and need more from him. Why three, and not two or four? These are Christmas Wishes, and everyone knows three is the perfect amount of wishes.
Make sure you describe in detail what you want. Pictures help!
#2: About those 'Santas' you sometimes see at the mall... (or at Downtown Disney, or at the Tea Party Palace, or on TV).
Santa sends helpers to the mall to meet with kids because he is so busy. These folks work for Santa himself, and report back to him on how you behaved in line and what you asked for. Be sure to be consistent with what you asked for in your letter because this one time when I was a little girl I asked the mall Santa for something different than what I'd put in my letter and it must have caused a mix up at the workshop and I ended up with neither of the things I'd asked for! So sad!
Santa sometimes likes to take breaks from the North Pole and go to the mall in person, just like in Undercover Boss, so you never know -- it might be the real Santa, it might not be. To be on the safe side, you absolutely should not 'out' one of Santa's Helpers, because he'll get mad and then he might tell Santa you want an ugly sweater instead of a puppy. Santa's Helpers can be spiteful like that. After we're back in the car, we discuss whether it was the real Santa, or one of his helpers, so pay close attention to details and be prepared to assert your opinion.
#3: Santa only brings handmade toys.
Santa brings handmade toys because that's what Elves make. Asking Santa for toys you see in the store is insulting, and puts Elves out of work. Sure, Santa might bring your friends the hottest stuff from Toys R Us, but they're actually just really well done knock offs. You don't want imitation toys, do you? Besides, Mommy and Daddy can buy those things so don't waste your Christmas wishes on that and instead ask Santa for special things that you can't find in the store. Plus, the Elves don't really like copying store-toys, that's boring for them. It makes them happy to be creative and design their own original toys, and you want to make the Elves happy, don't you? I'm sure the Elves get very excited when they see a letter from Viola and Eva because they know they're going to get to make something special, instead of just another boring Barbie doll.
#4: Santa's presents look different than ours.
Santa's gifts are wrapped in gold wrapping paper with fabric ribbons and plain cardboard tags. Because Santa is old school. No cheap stick-on plastic bows for him, no sir! Santa's handwriting is also distinctly not Mom or Dad's.
#5: Santa's gifts are set apart from ours
Santa doesn't have time to be traipsing through the house. Leave the cookies and milk by the fireplace, get presents stacked neatly by the fireplace. See how that works? The tree is just too far away, and he doesn't have time to mix his presents in with the rest of ours. Santa is on a schedule, people.
#6: Santa generally doesn't stuff stockings, Mom & Dad do.
Santa doesn't have time for the small stuff. He might tuck one or two little things in there (wrapped in gold), but by and large that's Daddy's job (because buying stocking stuffers is the only part of Christmas that Mom dislikes, and finding a stocking full of handmade knickknacks would be impossible).
#7: Santa doesn't leave mom & dad presents.
Santa doesn't bring grown-ups presents because there are so many kids out there who need his magic. When you get bigger, he'll stops bringing you presents, too. That's just part of growing up. So enjoy it while it lasts!
#8: Feed the reindeer. Or else.
Always leave apples for the reindeer. They work hard and they deserve a snack just as much as Santa does. We found these apples/candy cane things on Pinterest a while back and determined that A. Reindeer need candy AND nutrition. And also it's just a fun xmas eve craft. Other friends leave magic Reindeer feed (glitter and oats) or other similar whimsical snacks. That's cool. Variety is the spice of (reindeer) life and all the treats add up to a balanced meal, I'm sure.
#9: Where do the presents come from?
No one really knows how the Elves make all the presents, or how Santa delivers them to the kids on Christmas Eve, or how Reindeers fly: it doesn't have to be magic, necessarily. After all, the stores are able to make enough toys for all the boys and girls in the world: that technology exists. It's possible that Santa has a regular old factory up at the North Pole. Or, magic. Or a combination of both. There are lots of different theories. The Christmas movies are just that: people's theories on how it works --- which parts do you think are true and why?
BONUS: Re Elf on the Shelf:
You've heard about the Naughty List and the Nice List, right? Well most people don't realize that there is a third list: the Undecided List. Consider it Christmas purgatory. That's the list you end up on while Santa figures out whether you're getting presents or coal. Santa will send an Elf on the Shelf to your house if he needs to gather more information to make his naughty/nice judgement. The Elf is really a sophisticated surveillance robot, that is remotely controlled by real Elves at the North Pole. They move it around at night to see what they can snoop out. It has microphones and video cameras that stream to the North Pole. These robots freak Mommy out, so please please be good so that we never have to have one at our house. (And if your friends at school are talking about their Elf on a Shelf please don't repeat what I just told you about the undecided list and the surveillance bot because that might land you on the "undecided list" and then Santa will send us an Elf on the Shelf and remember the part where Mommy said that they creep her out? Good.)
Just to add a little bit more about the handmade gifts. This is my favorite part about how we do Christmas. I love supporting independent craftspeople at craft fairs and through Etsy. It's like giving two gifts: one to the girls and the other to the artisans who are usually very grateful for the business especially right before the holidays. Not all of our gifts are exclusively from independents, we do buy some items from Pottery Barn Kids and Land of Nod and other retailers whose toys have a handmade aesthetic (and whose stores the girls haven't been in). Sometimes, I make the gifts myself, and other times we are buying out-of-print items from eBay.
Getting the right balance of original/doable toy wishes sometimes requires a bit of coaching from Mom and Dad about what should be in the letter. We set ourselves up as the conspirators. But, inevitably, we get thrown curve balls: last year, Eva consistently asked Santa for FIRE, and this year Viola abruptly changed her mind at the very last minute, after I'd already pre-emptively bought the items she'd been talking about for weeks.
Will our approach help to extend their belief in Santa? I don't honestly know. Last year Viola (5) turned to me out of the blue and said matter-of-factly "I think you and Daddy make all the presents and there is no Santa Clause." It caught me totally off guard. That's the year Eva asked for Fire and Santa brought a giant pink ruffly teepee that Mommy couldn't possibly have made. After all, how could she have sewn something that huge without anyone noticing?*** I think that bought us a few more years of believing.
My kids are bright and not nearly as gullible as I was when I was little. We do our best to maintain their suspension of disbelief. I look forward to the day when I can finally take credit for having made some of their favorite toys, but for now I'm having a blast playing my part in the elaborate charade that is Santapalooza! :-)
*** At night, bleary-eyed, after everyone else had gone to bed, that's when--- but that is a story for a different day!