The children were finally nestled all snug in their beds. The stockings were hung and the prayers had been said. I had notions of getting some sleep myself, but I couldn't start to fill the stockings if there was even the slightest chance that one of our little ones was awake. All five of them still believed in Santa, and I didn't want to spoil that.
I could remember when I learned the truth about Santa. I was seven, just about my son Mike's age, when I found the store wrappings from Betsy Wetsy in the trash after I'd found her in my stocking. I knew then that my parents were the ones responsible for our Christmas surprises.
I tiptoed up the stairs to make sure the children were asleep. Little Lisa had dozed off during church and Frank had carefully carried her up to her crib. She looked like a cherub curled up with her bunny blankie.
Big sister Becky was sound asleep, too. She had hurried up to bed hoping that Santa would fill her stocking first. At six, she was our staunchest believer. Not a single doubt about Santa's existence crept into her explanations of how he got to all the children in the world. "His reindeer fly really, really fast," she'd say. I pulled her covers up. She didn't stir.
I peeked into our room as I passed. Frank was sleeping peacefully without a trace of guilt that he'd left me to wait up to fill stockings. He had, after all, laid the fire so it would be ready to light in the morning.
Andy and Matt shared a room. Motionless lumps, they laid beneath the covers of their bunk beds. I touched Matt lightly. He had been sort of scared of Santa recently and absolutely refused to sit on his lap. So much for a family picture.
Andy was surrounded by trucks, his favorite bedtime buddies. I kissed his cheek. His nose was still a little rosy from his role as Rudolph in the preschool sing-along. I had to be sure that Andy didn't see me doing Santa's duties. He'd be dreadfully disappointed.
I snuck silently into Mike's room. He was my skeptic. Several of his second grade friends had tried to convince him that there was no real Santa. He was wavering. I hoped he'd hang on to his belief for at least one more Christmas. Maybe by next year I'd have a better plan for handling his moment of truth. I tapped him gently. "Mikey, are you still awake?" Mike didn't answer.
I looked at his clock: 11:30. It seemed safe to start. With one ear tuned to the upstairs, I started five piles on the dining room table. I began organizing: Apples for everybody, toothbrushes to counteract the chocolate marshmallow snowmen, and boxes of fancy bandages. Becky would love her Barbie ones. For the boys, I added little metal airplanes -- just like the kind Frank flew. I went into the kitchen and took the bag of specially requested toys from the top shelf of the cupboard. I carefully removed the price tags and tossed the wrappings into the trash compactor. I wouldn't leave behind any evidence.
Suddenly, I heard the squeak of small feet on the stairs. I turned around quickly. There stood Mike, eyes as big as Christmas bulbs. His lower lip trembled. "So what the kids said is true," he said sadly. "It's just you and Dad that fill stockings. Santa isn't real...."
At a loss for words, I hugged my small son. Then I attempted an explanation. "Santa is real, Mike. He's as real as love and laughter, secrets and surprises, magic and memories."
That sounded good, so I continued. "Sometimes children are disappointed when they discover that Santa lives in people's hearts, not at the North Pole. They want to believe that the toys they find on Christmas morning are made in Santa's workshop rather than picked out by parents. Becky and the kids aren't ready to learn that, so I hope you won't tell them."
"I won't," promised Mike.
I continued. "Santa is lots and lots of people who keep the spirit of Christmas alive." Mike's face brightened a bit. "Are just parents Santa Claus?" I hesitated a moment. "Santa can be anybody, I guess." "Could I be part of Santa?" he asked solemnly. "I don't see why not," I answered. "This year, why don't you stuff the apples into the toes of the stockings."
Proudly, he pushed them in. "Next year maybe Becky will be ready to be a helper," he said. "I won't tell her, but I can't wait till she finds out the truth about Santa, too."
"Run on up to bed now," I encouraged after he finished the apples. "It's my turn to be Santa."
Giggling as he headed up the stairs, Mike waved and whispered, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night." -- By Ellen Javernick
What does it take to make it onto Santa's Good Little Boys and Girls List? Continue to the next story -- 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' -- to find out.