'THE ONLY THING I want for Christmas is to believe in Santa Claus again." My 9-year-old son, Flannery, whispered this to me 10 years ago. We were walking up one of the secret staircases in Silver Lake at the time, stepping on the scattered hard, brown berries, dried leaves and flaming bits of bougainvillea.
His wish took my breath my away. I knew a day would come when he would reach the cusp of believing and not believing. Now he was asking for the one thing I couldn't give him -- to believe again without a doubt.
I made up my mind to teach my children to believe in Santa Claus when I was still a teenager reading Betty Smith's novel, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I never forgot the parenting advice that Katie Nolan got from her mother, who insisted that Katie's new baby, Francie, be taught to believe in Kris Kringle, for "the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe." Katie argued that it was a bad idea because the child would learn it was a lie. The grandmother replied: "This is called learning the truth. It's a good thing to learn the truth oneself. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them stretch."
Fattens the emotions and makes them stretch. That sounded just right to me.
Years later, I even brought "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" with me when I gave birth to Flannery. The midwife had suggested bringing comforting objects to use as focal points during labor. I was far too nearsighted and freaked out to settle on comforting focal points, it turned out. I tried to leave before my firstborn entered the world, announcing I would come back on Thursday to have the baby. (It was Tuesday.)
But raise our children on the words of Smith's novel I did, and my husband, a born actor, added his own flair. Perched unseen on the rooftop, he rang sleigh bells and yelled out to his "reindeer" each Christmas Eve! Word of his talent spread. He was asked by friends and relatives to make Santa Claus calls, leaving jolly messages on answering machines. Last year, he had to talk a 6-year-old up the street out of his desire for a pet rabbit. "Ho, ho, ho ... it's a short year on rabbits," Santa chuckled into the phone. "Only one left. And there's a sick little girl in Minnesota who really wanted one.... "
"How sick is she?" the kid wanted to know.
"Sick, very sick." Santa had to think fast. "Poor little Sally in Minnesota had a bad reaction to a spider bite."
"And you know how cold it gets up there in Minnesota! Ho, ho, ho. It would make her so happy... "
But the kid wasn't buying it. "How come you can't get one of your elves to get her one too, Santa?"
"My elves got behind on rabbits this year. Yes, sir, I'm going to have to get after them. Ho, ho, ho."
But during those days of Christmas 1997, Flannery stalked me, pleading, "Have you thought about what I asked for, Mama? Have you?" I told him I was thinking very hard, and I was -- asking friends for advice, trying to find a way to ease him into growing up without breaking his heart.
Finally, I sat down to write him a long letter, my own version of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," written 100 years earlier. My letter began: "Dear Flannery, Having a son like you is like having Christmas every day. If I could, I would summon the reindeer across the sky with Santa riding high in his sleigh to land upon the roof above your bedroom, but I can only tell you truthfully and with all my love that Santa and Christmas are all of us together loving each other. ..." I read it to him on Christmas Eve. After I was finished, he was inconsolable. "There's really not one? Really?"
"Well, it's all of us ... " I wavered.
His eyes fixed on me with absolute certainty, he sobbed, "When I have a little boy, I will make him believe forever. I will have real reindeer, a real Santa, a real sleigh!"
His sister, Lucy, two years younger, appeared in the doorway. "Can I come in yet? Are you done? What are you crying for, Flannery? Santa's coming. Hey, I want my letter too. If he gets a letter, I want a letter."
"No, you don't!" Flannery warned her.
"Yes, I do!"
"Trust me, Lucy. You don't want a letter!" He looked like he needed an aspirin.
That night, Christmas Eve, we read stories, listened to the Elvis Christmas album and watched old movies. It was time for bed, and Flannery, who'd been wistful all evening, suddenly perked up.
"Hey Lucy," he said, "I think I know exactly where we should put the carrots for the reindeer and the eggnog and the cookies for Santa Claus." She jumped up and started gathering the goodies.
His father and I said nothing as Lucy placed them as directed. The carrots went on the front walk outside, and the cookies and eggnog on the table near the tree. I tucked Lucy into bed, and she was soon asleep, but we let Flannery stay up to chew on the carrots to leave appropriate reindeer teeth marks. Next, he drank the eggnog and devoured the cookies, leaving just the right number of crumbs. He even dug some dirt up in the frontyard to show her where Santa landed his sleigh.
On Christmas morning, Lucy awoke amazed to see the shredded carrots, reindeer hoof prints, cookie crumbs and presents. Flannery was thrilled at her reaction, and we had a wonderful Christmas. But a year later, Lucy hounded me for the truth, and so it came time to write her a letter too. When she finished reading it, she hit the floor: "How could you? How could you tell me?"
Fattens the emotions and makes them stretch. We were never in short supply in our house.
But that same Christmas, we brought home a new baby sister, Norah, born on Dec. 23, 1998. Flannery and Lucy fell in love with her at first sight. Norah is now almost 9 and has seen fairies, set leprechaun traps and swears to the existence of mermaids. She doesn't doubt Santa Claus for a second.
Flannery and Lucy have seen to that.
Kerry Madden is the author of the Smoky Mountain trilogy of young adult novels: "Gentle's Holler," "Louisiana's Song" and the forthcoming "Jessie's Mountain."