The best traditions etch themselves into your heart quietly over time without intention, I think. You do something and it’s great, so you do it again. Not because you want to do it forever, but because you want to do it just one more time. And then you do it one more time after that. Then, after a few years, you realize it’s worn a soft spot in your routine, like a gentle slope in the floor where people find themselves standing time and again as they step into the warmth of shelter. It’s not intentional. It just feels right.
That was our visit with Santa- The Big Guy- for the last 10 years. We started out taking our 7 month old, our first baby, to him because, well, he was close. And the “fancy” Santa downtown was way too much of a production, and a bit expensive for us in those early and very broke days as a family of 3. But we’d heard good things about this one, and we could choose to purchase just a 5×7, and he had reindeer! We could hardly contain our excitement over experiencing Christmas through our baby’s eyes for the first time. The Santa visit and picture was more for us than him. It felt like a thing real parents did- take their kids to see Santa. 7 months in, and we still wondered if we were actually real parents.
That picture is now framed and safely packed away in a box of all the other framed pictures with The Big Guy (a.k.a. the REAL Santa) in our storage unit. When we chose what to keep and what to store as we prepped for our Happy Loud Life RV trip, there was absolutely no question that THAT box won a non-stop ticket straight to climate controlled storage to live among other things we consider family treasures.
I considered taking Wallace to see Santa last year when he was only 3 days old, like on the way home from the hospital. It would be our 9th year visiting him, and we would be putting our 4th baby into his arms, the other 3 spilling out onto his knees and the side of his chair. As I put up the 8 other framed pictures of our children with him on the mantle early last December, it made me cry thinking Wallace wouldn’t get to be a part of the picture for his very first Christmas. He was due on the 16th of December, but I knew he would come 4-5 days late, just like the other 3- and he did.
We didn’t end up taking Wallace to see Santa on the way home from the hospital. Practicality and exhaustion won out over hormones. Luckily I managed to get the other 3 in for a visit last year while I was still pregnant, and when I realized we’d be in town just long enough to see Santa on the first day of pictures this year, I was GIDDY. I booked one of the first appointments, and we finally took all 4 to see him on November 18th.
The two big kids left to go stay at my mom’s a few days later while we packed up our house. I wondered aloud to Scott if we would be able to drive back through the area next year for a picture. We both said we’d try to make it happen.
Through my 10 Christmases as a mother, I’ve tried to manufacture my fair share of Christmas magic, and mostly my kids don’t buy into it. The cookie decorating is always a mess and stressful, the hot chocolate and movie nights end in chaos and someone’s feelings hurt that we didn’t watch their movie. Just last night we tried to drive them through a Christmas lights display and they complained like we were making them write lines on a chalkboard. (God knows I couldn’t keep up with that elf, either). But pictures with Santa…and not just any Santa, this Santa, THE SANTA, are our comfortable tradition, our easy magic.
Santa died last week.
Looking through the comments on the Facebook announcement, I was struck by how many people had the same comfortable tradition we did. I thought our 10 year streak was pretty good, but there were others who’d seen him for 16, 17… even 20 years. I always felt like he recognized us each year. You know how the good teachers have perfected making you feel like your kid is the most important in the class when they are talking to you about them, but deep down you know they talk like this about all children to their parents? It was evident that Santa had perfected making each family feel like he’d been waiting for them to come back and that he’d be excited to see them again next year.
When Santa dies a couple weeks after you take your first born to see him for what is likely the last year he’ll believe in him, and when Santa dies a couple weeks after you finally get your last baby to see him, and when Santa dies a couple weeks after you move away, and when Santa dies in December, it’s sad. And there’s never a good time for Santa to die, of course. But there was also something about seeing all these families spill condolences across Facebook in December, sharing photo collages and memories.
A single human- a kind man with a gentle spirit- made holiday magic so easy for so many. He was the comfortable tradition, the one everyone took home with them, tucked away in boxes, and pulled out year after year, then brought back ever-growing families with them to fill his lap and his arms.
No doubt, his legacy will live on with families who will treasure their photos as much as we do ours, for generations. For me, though, I will always remember how our visits with him were woven, each and every year, into the first decade of our parenthood. He will mark the beginning and (nearly) the end of our “young family” chapter. And I will always remember how very much like a real parent I finally felt when I took my first baby to see Santa
We didn’t intend for him to become our tradition. It just felt right.