A Heartbreaking Christmas

Christmas Eve, 1972

The family was rushing around, getting ready for Santa’s arrival. Santa always scheduled his visit to the Walker family shortly after they returned from church on Christmas Eve. My older sisters told the rest of us not to go into their room. Presumably, they were wrapping gifts. Mom said she had the kitchen under control.

So, my twelve-year-old sister Cathy and I hung out in our bedroom, conveniently located in the front of the house. Someone had told us Santa might not stop at our house if he saw us peeping. The crab apple tree on the front lawn would block Santa’s view of our windows, we reasoned. Cathy and I promised each other we would run away from the windows as soon as we got a glimpse of the reindeer. We just needed to see how they would land.

After lying at the foot of our bed for an eternity with no outside activity detected, I left Cathy on duty, with strict instructions to yell “Santa’s here!” if he arrived before I got back. I told her I could peek out the bathroom window if necessary. While I was taking care of business, our wise, middle sister slipped in and caught Cathy peeking out the window. She seized the opportunity to tell Cathy “The truth”.

“You’re too old to still believe in Santa Claus,” she said. Sandi told Cathy our parents paid Santa to come open presents with us. He was the same guy who “played Santa” at Wolf and Dessauer downtown, she explained.

Cathy protested. “I know. That’s why I know he’s real.”

“Since you and Joy still believe, mom and dad have to keep hiring the man to come to our house. Haven’t you ever wondered why he always makes excuses about why we can’t see the reindeer or his sleigh? He pulls up every year in that beat up old station wagon and tells us he left the sleigh at the park or some such nonsense. Just think about it for a minute, Cathy. There’s no way one man could get around the whole world in one night. There’s no such thing as magic. Don’t tell Mom and Dad I said anything. I just thought you should know before he gets here.”

And with that, Sandi slipped out as stealthily as she slipped in.

When I returned from the bathroom, Cathy had to tell me the entire story—everything Sandi told her, she repeated to me. Cathy couldn’t bear to keep the news to herself, and she didn’t think it would be fair to keep news that big from me. The problem was that I was an eight-year-old second grader with the naivety of a kindergartener.

Santa had been coming to our house every year of my life. Days earlier, I had taken a picture to school of first grade me in my living room sitting on Saint Nick’s lap. With my friends, I had gained celebrity status. The picture of me sitting with the big guy with the white beard at my house was all the proof we needed.

Cathy and I were now in this thing together. When Santa arrived, we tried to act excited. The two of us went through the motions, but our faces told the truth. We were no longer innocent believers. We sang carols with Santa and answered his questions about the true meaning of Christmas as we always did, but it wasn’t the same. Each of us opened a gift or two while Santa watched. More than once I said, “Oh, thank you Mom and . . . I mean, thank you Santa!”

Cathy and I had to continue with the Christmas tradition as though our world had not just been uprooted. Our Santa hugs and goodbyes were no longer genuine—no longer were they from the naivete of childhood. Cathy and I had grown from innocence to omniscient in the flash of an evening.

Now I look back at that Christmas as the most memorable of my childhood. But it was not until I thought about writing this blog that I considered my parents. Mom and Dad never asked us why we no longer believed in Santa. They never mentioned that the end of this tradition—a tradition that had started with my mother’s family when she was a girl—had broken their hearts too.

Their babies were growing up. That had to be difficult. Santa would not return to the Walker home until grandchildren arrived many years later. The Christmas with the saddest memory for Cathy and me was perhaps the most heartbreaking for them as well.

Do you have a similar story of family traditions? Please share below.