My daughter only wants Santa to bring her one thing this year: a real reindeer. She won’t believe the gift is impossible because impossibility is not a part of the myth. This is the first year I’ve had to think about that myth since I was seven and my neighbor ruined Christmas with the horrible truth. It was enough to send me running into the house where my father, the only man I loved more than Santa, sat on the stair steps with me to process the revelation.

Santa died that summer, and his recent resurrection is surprising. I hadn’t planned on creating Santa for my daughter; last year around this time she was opening her “Christmas surprises” at our home without a thought about the mythical North Pole resident. At my parents’ house, my mother told her that Santa had left presents in the basement while we were sleeping. My daughter walked around her stash smacking dolls in the face and kicking toys, angry that someone had been in her grandparents’ house.  She didn’t calm down to play until we told her that this Santa person was gone.  

This year Santa is here, her grandfather is gone, and I’m struggling to reconcile the two without stealing Christmas.

On that summer day of revelation, I was most worried about my grandmother. Santa had delivered my color television to her house the Christmas before, and I couldn’t believe that she was the one who’d made the purchase. “But TVs are so expensive,” I’d told my father, feeling low for a narcissism fueled by the myth of a person with limitless supply—a person whose only wish was to fulfill my desire for things.  He assured me that people who loved me wanted to make sacrifices. They did what was within their means and my excitement was enough. But I’ve always been a brooder, so I kept him on the steps for an hour asking about other big ticket items from the past. And the Barbie house? The bicycle? The car I was supposed to share with my little brothers?

I wish I could say I was humbled that day—that knowing the truth, I asked only for things that fit the acknowledged budget of parents who told me that electricity was too expensive to leave the television on.  I wish I could say I asked for the dollar store Barbie knockoff who only had one track of hair, or a toothbrush, or some wooden blocks with which I could build my own fantasy house. It didn’t happen that way; I was seven. I still thought the world revolved around me; I just saw the mechanics of the solar system more clearly.

My daughter thinks this system will drop a real live reindeer at our door. She believes in Santa and I haven’t said a word because she already knows too much. She knows about the permanence of death. She tells strangers and new friends “Papaw passed away.” She knows Mommy cries sometimes, usually while sitting in front of his picture. She knows that something is missing, but money prevents me from filling this void with the wonder of wrapped toys.

My father was a wonderful man who did ordinary things. He made the same breakfast every Christmas morning.  He asked for the same Christmas present: three pairs of dress socks, black, brown, and blue. When we got creative (the hot air popcorn popper was pure comedy) he told us not to be creative the next year. No use spending all that money. He wore the same Christmas outfit for almost a decade- a brown sweater with white leather patches and matching leather pants that he wiped down every Christmas afternoon. Long before cancer began to corrode his spine, he spent most of Christmas morning with a huge camcorder on one shoulder, taping our reactions to the gifts for which we thanked a myth of a man.

I know now that the human is better than the myth. Myths don’t spend hours putting together complicated toys and playing on the floor alongside their children; or burn the potatoes and still make them taste good; or weep when James Brown dies on Christmas morning; or cry when the grandchildren climb into his lap and he senses that he doesn’t have many more holidays left.

In just two days, my daughter won’t get what she most wants for Christmas and neither will I.  The morning may find us both nursing our losses or it may find us making new memories. We will do whatever mixture of those two things together, fully human, fully present. I’m old enough to recognize that as a gift worth more wonder than all of the toys I ever imagined to be in the North Pole.

Follow Asha: @AFrenchWriter