I love the story of The Polar Express: A boy who's stopped believing in Santa boards a magical train to the North Pole where Santa gives him a special jingle bell heard only by those who believe. The book, the movie - they're both wonderful.
When Teen Spirit was a third grader and I read the book to his little sister, he gushed to me how badly he longed for a bell from Santa. Then he would know for sure that Santa existed. My instincts told me that all this talk about proof meant that he was ready to give up the ghost and I should let nature take its course. But the mama in me felt an ache in her heart that her little boy was outgrowing a beloved tradition. I vacillated about whether to grant my own version of that wish. I had been mounting increasingly elaborate deceptions intended to shore up his belief, from the trail of cookie crumbs to fancifully written letters from Mr. Claus. After years of escalating drama surrounding Christmas Eve preparations, I had started to question whether I should have prolonged his innocent belief for so long and so robustly. Each year I inched closer to telling him. But I couldn’t seal the deal and he was not getting the very fine point I put on “the spirit of Christmas is in your heart.” Would he end up feeling deceived and angry with me when he finally learned the truth?
I started to dread the seasonal depositions, as he prodded me for inconsistencies, even though he was very ready to jump on any retort I offered. He admitted he was the only kid in 4th grade who would say he believed in Santa. I knew I had to let him accept the truth but watching that part of his childhood evaporate pained me so much. So much, that when he asked again for proof, I hand-sewed a red felt bag trimmed with faux fur and monogrammed "S.C." Inside, a shiny jingle bell and a card, from “The North Pole”, bearing a single word: Believe. Ecstatic, he cherished it in his desk drawer. All was well until the next Christmas. Elementary school would be done in a few short months – there really was no turning back.
We went for his favorite pizza and talked about wanting to hold tight to the possibility that extraordinary things could happen, if we just believed. He crumpled his straw wrapper, rolling and squishing it between his thumb and index finger. He blurted out, "I know what you're trying to say and I don't want to hear it." We each quietly struggled to squeeze down a pepperoni slice and left.
A week later, we stood nose to nose cracking eggs into a bowl. He whispered, "Mom, are you the one that eats the cookies?" I nodded and his lip quivered. I backtracked, "Of course, when I make all these Christmas cookies I have to eat some." Unconvinced, he avoided my gaze and reached for a spoon. "So that means you're the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, too?" More cracked eggs. A fine mist of flour drifted around the bowl as we stirred it together. We silently molded the dough into disks and flattened the center with our thumb prints.
I thought that was the end of it but months later, he was jumping and hanging off me as I was carrying La Principessa around a pool. I asked him to stop stepping on me. He glared, "So where'd you buy the jingle bell?" His snarky tone took me aback. I cooled his sister’s head with a handful of cold water that startled me as it landed on my burning shoulders. He looked seized with the fear that I might cry. We ignored that conversation for months until I accidentally jostled the red bag in his desk. At the sound of the delicate jingling, he turned. I smiled. "Good, you can still hear it." He replied, "Of course, I can still hear it." Pause. "Did you buy that for me?" I nodded. “I tried to give you something special and magical. I really wanted to be your Santa." He nodded, looking pensive. "Thanks Mom, that's really nice." I asked him if he was ready to be Santa for his sister. He wrapped his arms around me. "Not yet, but I could help you be her Santa." This time I was the one who got something special and magical.