My Darling Dubious Firstborn,
You may have figured out that Santa is not watching you. But I am. I’ve had my eye on you since you first caught sight of the stockings sticking out of one of the boxes we hauled down from the attic; skeptically surveying them as we set them by the mantle.
I saw you at the Christmas parade, steely and removed in your chair, never once allowing a smile or look of amazement to cross your face. You have uncovered the secrets of this game, and you’re not about to play along for One. More. Minute. You’ve not come right out and said it, but I, my dear, can feel it. The jig is up.
While it’s heartbreaking in many ways to see you cross the threshold into the realm of the non-believers, I’m comforted remembering our Christmases together.
Nine years chock-full o’ Christmas magic. We did not happen upon this place without intention. No, our journey has been full of purpose and tradition. Hopeful letters written, red-velvety laps sat in, cookies carefully decorated and placed by fireplaces, carrots divided amongst nine little buckets on lawns—reward for the long journey to your rooftop, and nine wondrous Christmas Eve’s with dreamy wishes swirling through your sleepy head (half listening for the sound of faint bells and click-clack hooves overhead)—experiences marking the years we’ve traveled to get here.
To your 10th Christmas: where you don’t hear the bell anymore.
Though I’m fighting the lump of nostalgia that keeps creeping into my throat, I’ve known it was coming. There have been signs. Three times last month I found Tangerine, your beloved stuffed orangutan, on the foot of your bed, instead of cozied up by your pillow.
And there was no asking about elves this year. Usually, you can’t wait for your elf to arrive and begin his month-long reign of all things silly, in various locations throughout the house.
But not this year.
The first morning your prized elf showed up with a cheeky grin and an acrobatic stance on the advent calendar, you didn’t even break stride or acknowledge he was there. Ignoring his twinkling expression completely, you reached deadpanned past him to retrieve your backpack and jacket, a signal that you wanted to head out the door – to fourth grade – where you’ve grown into a big kid, in what feels like a minute.
You’re growing up so fast, and I’ve never wanted to put you on pause. Every year brings a new version of you, and I’ve loved them all. But with each new rendering, I’m bidding farewell to a younger, more innocent boy. So if I stare at you longer than usual or squeeze you extra tight, it’s because I am memorizing the you you are now; before I say goodbye.
I’ve done this in a million invisible ways and tiny moments over the years—said goodbye to all the little yous.
Like the first time you ran off enthusiastically through the door to your preschool class, not turning back for a last kiss or hug.
Or the time you learned to put your shoes on by yourself and never needed me to strap or tie them for you again.
The first time I let go of your two wheel bike and you didn’t wobble or fall, but instead confidently rode off on the path, shouting out, “I’m doing it myself!” over and over in surprise.
When you figured out you preferred showers over baths, never sinking into bubbles or diving underwater with rubber duckies again; me on the side of the tub carefully rinsing the shampoo from your shiny, soft, little-boy-curls.
Or when you told me not to buy you snug fitting pajamas anymore—especially with things like Santa or reindeer on them. Snarky sayings or baseballs are fine, but no snowmen!
And just last year, you said, “Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t really want you to read to me before bed anymore. I just prefer to read to myself. I hope that’s OK?” (And of course it was, is okay, but I still had to take a minute and wash some dishes so you wouldn’t see me shed a few tears.)
You’re doing what you are supposed to do. Growing up. Every time you change and let a part of yourself go, it makes room for something new and wonderful to bloom.
But I know that this moment—this reluctant last year with Santa—is the gateway to a letting go of all the magical experiences that will now be relegated to a younger you. We are leaving the place of Easter eggs, tooth fairies, and leprechauns. I know that we’re turning a corner on your childhood and never coming back here again.
But with great knowledge comes great responsibility, and you my dear are now a magic-keeper for your little brother, and maybe your one-day children. You don’t know this yet, but you will get to visit this place again; through different eyes, but no less full of wonder. As I have with you.
Watching you watch Christmas unfold, through the eyes of a skeptical 9-year-old, is taking its toll on me. But I can’t help hoping that somewhere under your aloof exterior is a smaller, skinnier, more bouncy version of yourself, who will serve as your memory keeper.
A placeholder to a time in your life, when you left cookies for a man you believed flew all the way around the world just to grant your most important wishes. When you wrote heartfelt letters to a bearded stranger in a red coat to bring your “petrified baby dragon” to life.
When you darted down the stairs out of breath to survey the scene under the tree at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning, and could barely get the words out fast enough to explain your joy. When exuberance and wonder filled you up, every December.
I hope that one day, when you’re tucking in your own child on Christmas Eve, or stringing lights on a tree with a loved one, that you are reminded of the wide-eyed, younger you, bundled up in snug, snowman pjs, looking into a starry night sky, waiting for any sign of Santa.
I love you with all my heart, all of the yous I’ve met so far, and all of the versions yet to come.
Merry Christmas Always,
P.S. I’ll wait for you to tell me, when you are ready, that you don’t believe. I’m honored to continue this journey with you, even if Santa will not be coming with us.
Jacque lives in California with her two boys (lively), two dogs (rescues), one cat (indifferent), and her husband (patient). She recently finished a memoir on family lost, then found. Her writing can be found on The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, HuffPost, and more. You can also find her at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.