I can't tell you when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, or Santo Clos as my familia from Mexico refers to him, because I'm not quite sure I ever believed in him. I mean his whole shtick just didn't make sense to me, even as a kid. I was staying up until midnight on Noche Buena to open all my gifts, and not a single one of them came from that pale viejo barbón.
And you know what? I didn't feel like I was missing out, because I had tamales, buñuelos, a really good excuse to stay up after my bedtime, and no need to try to fall asleep and wait until Christmas morning for the festivities to begin, like so many of my friends at school did. No way! Dec. 25 was for sleeping in and recovering from the night before.
I absolutely love the way that my Mexican family celebrated Christmas growing up, and I was determined, when I became a mother, to have my children get the same kind of Navidad. It didn't work out exactly that way, though.
I married a man who is not Latino, and his answer when I told him about my little plan was: "What do you mean you want the kids to stay up until midnight and open all of their gifts? Are you insane? And when the heck is Santa supposed to come if the kids are up all night?" Oh, and the whole idea of Christmas being all about Christmas Eve and pretty much over on Christmas Day was a no-go as far as he was concerned, too.
He just didn't get it, and I was so confused. How could anyone not want to celebrate the holidays the only way I really wanted to? Clearly there was a lot of explaining to do on both sides and compromising to be made.
Agreeing on the food was easy — he whole-heartedly approves of Mexican food on any given day, what a convenenciero! We dodged the whole religion bullet and going to mass at midnight, because neither of us are practicing anything anymore, but that's a whole other can of worms. Those were out of the way, but everything else required a lot of discussion, and after pleading and tantrum throwing (on my part) compromises, or new traditions as we like to think of them, were created for our beautiful multicultural family. Both my husband and I kept the parts of Christmas that we could not stand to give up and created a two-day ritual that works for us and goes a little somethin' like this . . .
On Noche Buena, we cook a big dinner. There is usually ham involved and Mexican foods that we all adore. We invite friends and family to join us, and theoretically we stay up until midnight, although since our kids are still really young we sometimes lie and pretend that midnight is happening when it's really only 9 p.m. Whenever "midnight" arrives, the kids are allowed to open gifts from guests, and one gift each from us.
Before the girls go to bed, we put out milk and cookies for Santa Claus. The kids are usually so exhausted from staying up until medianoche that they fall asleep rather quickly. The cookies and milk turn into a few crumbs and an empty glass while the girls sleep.
When the girls wake up, there are unwrapped presents under the tree for them — because who has time to buy different wrapping paper for Santa, and my girls would totally notice if the gifts were wrapped in the same paper as their non-Santa gifts. The girls know which gifts are for them because earlier in the month they each write a letter to Santa asking for a few things, and Santa pretty much sticks to their lists.
I don't often like to admit when I'm not 100 percent right, but as much as I fought my husband to do Christmas my Latino way, I have to say that I love seeing how excited my girls get about their gifts from Santa. It all ends up being super sweet and we get twice as long to celebrate. Ironically, it's my husband who feels kind of guilty for lying to them about there being a Santa, but I don't because that window of belief is so brief and so beautiful that I think it's totally worth the fib.
I know Santa's days are numbered in my home because after the holidays last year, my eldest daughter came home from school and said that two girls in her class did not believe in Santa Claus, and then she asked me, "Does Santa Claus really exist?" I felt caught between a piedra and a lump of coal until it occurred to me to ask her, "What do you think?" She answered, "I think he's real." I simply nodded my head in agreement and smiled.
The good thing about celebrating the way we do now is that even when the girls stop believing in Santa Claus, they will still have Noche Buena and tamales. And, best of all, the blending of traditions and cultures will be the gift they get to keep forever.