OUR 7-year-old son John had been on the fence since early December about whether to believe in Santa. He had accompanied his younger sister to the mall to see the jolly old man, but his friends were raising questions. He was torn between excitement and embarrassment.
"Isn't Santa really you and Dad?" he asked me one night. I answered evasively, not wanting to take away the mystery and innocence of Christmas, at the same time not wanting to be condescending by taking his concerns lightly.
On Thursday night, three days before Christmas, John confided tearfully to my husband that he hadn't written Santa and that he probably wouldn't get many presents, as he had counted only two under the tree. I'd been trying to get John to write Santa, but he never felt it was worth the effort, especially if Santa wasn't real.
While all these doubts and fears raged, John was given a project at school to explore holiday traditions of another country. We chose England because we had a good friend from church who was stationed here with the British embassy. One of the things John learned was that children's messages were placed in the fireplace, from where they flew up to Father Christmas.
So Friday night, Granddad lit a big fire, and I gave John and Nancy the task of writing Santa. John asked for some baseball figures, two other things and a small nutcracker, none of which were in my cache. We had received a large nutcracker as a gift earlier that week, and John's friend Katie had a smaller nutcracker that John had admired.
Both children put their letters in the fire, and John said quietly to Granddad, "That was a waste of time."
The next day, Christmas eve, Grandmother and I went to get doughnuts for Christmas morning. I told her we would make one unscheduled stop because I thought Katie's mom had told me where she'd purchased Katie's nutcracker. The shelves in the store were as bare as a Soviet supermarket's. We were just about to leave when a clearance table caught my eye. On it were three slightly scratched but otherwise undamaged nutcrackers. They were small and red and perfect. I snatched one up and quickly purchased it.
That night we all went to church, came home and put out Santa's snack of cookies, hot chocolate, carrots and an apple. My husband and I sneaked out to get John's new bike from a neighbor's house. We got all the gifts arranged around the tree and then shuffled off to bed. As I was turning out the lights downstairs, I remembered the nutcracker hidden in the laundry room. I put it out to guard John's bike until morning.
John was up early, apprising everyone of Santa's bounty. All doubts of his existence were erased. John's eyes were full of the innocence and wonder and mystery of Christmas. He was so excited his body shook.
Katie and her family came over later. I told Katie's mom about finding the nutcracker and thanked her for pointing me toward the store.
"I'm not sure what you're talking about," she said. "We got Katie's nutcracker seven years ago in Peoria."
More than one person's belief in Santa was restored that day.
Dorothy Linthicum writes from Ellicott City.