Believing First in the Real Reason for Christmas

Tears streamed down the face surrounded by blonde curls. How could I have hurt our 4-year-old daughter so? Although I was not a pastor at the time, I was a journalist, so honesty has always been a vital part of my professional and personal lives — even when the truth hurts. Which it did when our daughter asked me, “Daddy? Is there really an Easter bunny?”

“Do you really want to know? I mean, do you really want the truth?”

I prayed that she would tell me no.

“Yes, Daddy,” she replied, her sweet eyes filled with the trust of a girl who believed her father could do no wrong.

My mind zig-zagged between the burden of sadness I would place on her little shoulders and the fear that someday in the not-too-distant future, she would call me a liar for having perpetuated a myth. I opted for a little sadness now instead of a lot of resentment — and possible distrust — later.

“Really? The truth?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“I’m afraid not, Punkin. There is no Easter Bunny.”

The sorrow swept over Christina like a tidal wave. She was crushed, and I was the beast who had crushed her. She looked as though I had just told her there was no Santa Claus.

Which I never had to do. Which we never had to do. Early in our journey as parents, Diane and I decided how to handle the issue of the Jolly Old Elf: We would never tell Christina and Robbie that there was a Santa, so we could never be blamed when they found out that there wasn’t.

While that may sound negative, we believe we had success because we did it in a positive way: We simply made the birth of Jesus the focal point of our holiday celebrations. There was no Scroogish ban on whimsical Santa decorations, our kids had their pictures taken on The Bearded One’s lap, and we watched the full list of classic animated Christmas specials — which included Rudolph and Frosty and their co-star with the red suit trimmed in white fur. Of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas was not to be missed because of its emphasis on the true meaning of the holiday.

We tried, imperfectly, not to speak of Santa as though he were real — and quickly changed the subject if we or someone around us slipped. We talked about him as a tradition, not a person. If we read “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” we made it clear that Clement Moore’s poem was just a story and that the real Saint Nicholas was a godly man who had a big heart but no reindeer. We would point out that the Santa we passed in the Ohio Valley Mall had a better costume than others we had seen, or that the one in the Christmas parade in Wheeling looked as though he had a real beard.

And we never used the “Santa Claus is watching you” threat as a means to modify our children’s holiday-season behavior.

Occasionally, we would put Santa’s name on a gift tag — usually when it was a goofy gift or one that no one wanted credit (or blame) for — and we would chuckle as we announced it was from you-know-who. In short, we avoided saying something that could come back on us once our children’s friends discovered the truth and cynically shared it with them.

We talked about the baby Jesus all the time, and the celebration of His birthday took center stage in our home. The Advent Wreath appeared on the dining room table shortly after Thanksgiving to help us to count down the days until Christmas. The day we put up the tree — with Handel’s “Messiah” and Amy Grant’s “A Christmas Album” playing in the background — was also the day we placed Nativities all around the house. Many of the decorations served to remind our kids Who was the real star of Christmas: little Nativities, shepherds, a light-up church. As I teetered on a kitchen chair to place the star on top, we talked about how a star led the Wise Men to Jesus. (Being a lover of bad dad jokes, I often referred to them as The Three Wise Guys …) Even the train set under the tree had at least one Nativity in the middle of the plastic village.

The heirloom Nativity had the most prominent place: on the buffet in the dining room. The tradition handed down by my dad was to use the entire surface. Each figurine had a story: the three-legged lamb who had to lean against a shepherd for support, his identical twin (except for the fourth leg) who peered into the jug of myrrh carried by one of the Wise Men, and the angels with their instruments perched on ornamental ledges on the back of the buffet. The manger was left conspicuously empty, with Baby Jesus tucked away in a pretty, little box until He was brought out on Christmas Eve. “Who’s missing?” is how the routine began. “Jesus!” “When do we put Him in the manger?” “Now!” Sometimes we would sing “Happy Birthday” to the tiny, ceramic Infant.

Other highlights of that night were the candlelight service at our home church, Kirkwood Presbyterian, followed by the pomp and ceremony of the 11 p.m. service at St. Matthew’s Episcopal in Wheeling. That tradition started 40 years ago this December 24th when I invited the girl next door — Diane — to go to a Christmas Eve service with me.

Did the refocusing strategy work? We think so. When Robbie was about 5 years old, I took him to the Harts/Big Bear store just outside Bridgeport. It was a week or so before Christmas, and a big sign informed us as we walked in that kids could get their pictures taken with Santa. Forgetting all about our commitment to keep Santa on the bench at Christmas, I asked, “You want to get your picture taken with Santa?”

“No, Daddy. But you should, since you’re the only one in the family who still believes in him.”

Demarest is pastor of Rock Hill Presbyterian Church near Bellaire and Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Bridgeport. Prior to that, he was news director at WWVA Radio. Diane and he have seven grandchildren, who hear a lot from them about Jesus — but not Santa.

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