Two Decembers ago, I bought an advent calendar for O. He was three, going on four. It was a cardboard house with little windows full of chocolate. It seemed a little boring to me to have the same thing behind the door every day, and I wasn't crazy about the idea of my kid eating chocolate with his breakfast for twenty-four days straight, so I took out the chocolate from about half of the windows and replaced it with other stuff. It wasn't easy, since the windows were really small, but I found some little toys that fit, and put in other "treats" that fit, like little gummi bear vitamins and, for a couple of windows, single almonds. My Old Man laughed when he saw me putting in the almonds, but the first time O. discovered an almond behind the advent calendar window, he was excited. "Look Mama, a almond
!" he said. He was just into the whole surprise thing, and it was so cute. I figured I'd only get away with almonds in the advent calendar for one year, though.
Flash forward past December 2007 (no almonds, O. still into his daily advent calendar surprise) to this year. My kid has gone from being a little kid to being on the verge of big kidhood. On December fifth, he opens his advent calendar window and exclaims "There's nothing there!" He speculates that perhaps the cats are responsible. I investigate, and opening the windows for December sixth and seventh, I find empty spaces. I proceed to open every window. All empty. Suddenly the fact that O. had been uninterested in breakfast the day before made sense: he had been gorging himself on chocolate, licorice, and gummi bear vitamins while we slept, having carefully closed each window to cover his trail.
Sometimes when O. is being trying in one way or another, I remind my Old Man not to take it personally, even though it can seem like our son is pointedly trying to drive one or both of us crazy. I am actually fairly good at not taking it personally. But, having taken the trouble to find all manner of small treats to fit in these little windows, then carefully crammed them in there and shut each cardboard door late at night on November 30th when I should've been in bed, this advent calendar thing felt personal. I was disappointed. I was pissed. O. got an unusually long time out and a lecture from Mama, then an extra two minutes of time out to sit and think about the lecture ("Now you sit and think
about what I just said" - this is a move my dad used to love, and one that I rarely resort to). Then I told him that, in light of the purloined advent treats, I was throwing away the rest of his Halloween candy, which I proceeded to do. My Old Man felt this was unduly harsh, but the advent calendar was my project and so he left the response to me.
The punishment was done and O. was in a very contrite and eager-to-please mood. But I still had a dilemma: it was the day before St. Nicholas day, and I'd bought a bunch of stuff to put in all the stockings. Given the whole "naughty or nice" nature of the Santa/St. Nick thing, should I scale back on O's treats and stick in a small lump of coal? (Where does one get a lump of coal? Would a charcoal briquette suffice?)
Now, let me just say that as a tot I never bought the Santa thing for a minute. My family went overboard with it, arranging to have Santa appear in the flesh and bully me onto his lap, ordering me to sing him songs. It was all very strange and frightening, this big, loud stranger in his bizarre getup and obviously fake beard. (What was he trying to hide?) And so I was relieved at the tender age of three to figure out that Santa was really Uncle Hodge. I played along 'til I was ten in order to placate the grown-ups and milk the Christmas gravy train, but I never believed.
As a result of the lack of Santa magic in my childhood, I thought we might just skip it with our kids. Maybe we could sit O. down and say "listen, there's this thing called Santa, which is a load of bull, but don't tell the other kids, okay?" But when I suggested to my Old Man that we might forgo the Santa mythology, he looked at me like I'd just suggested we send O. out to work twelve-hour days at a textile mill. Despite the fact that he was a little skate-punk with almost no sentimental feelings toward his family from a young age, Santa was a sacred element of my Old Man's childhood. I respected that. And, being metaphorically minded, I could totally get onboard with the whole "Santa is the spirit of Christmas" angle, so we agreed that Santa would be part of our Christmas tradition.
But part of the Santa thing is the whole "naughty or nice" idea. This isn't something we dwell on a lot, but O. knows about it. (Hey, we're not above trying to get a little more cooperation out of our kindergartener in exchange for that stocking full of goodies and the extra few presents under the tree.) Would it be sending the wrong message if jolly old St. Nick hooked O. up with treats galore on the very night after Adventgate was busted wide open? I didn't want to stint in my role as St. Nick, and I did feel that O. had been punished enough. But, still, I was conflicted.
I talked to my Creative Writing students about it later that day. Like my Old Man, they found the Halloween candy move harsh. I asked them for their advice about what to do about St. Nicholas day. They were unanimous: I should just stuff his stocking. Santa was a forgiving old Saint, in their book, and O. had been punished enough.
One of my students suggested that we get a different advent calendar. Her family has one that has a little ornament or other tree-trimmer behind each door, which they put up on a fabric tree to count down the days 'til Christmas. I ran the idea by O. when I got home from school, expecting him to object to the no-candy version of the advent calendar. Instead, he was excited. "That would be like having two Christmas trees!" he observed. He liked the idea. And my Old Man noted that it would probably circumvent conflict once Roo is old enough to participate and she and O. begin to share the honor of opening the December door of the day.
I ended up stuffing O's stocking with everything I'd bought for him before the discovery of Adventgate. He was very good about waiting 'til the Old Man and I got up on Saturday morning to check out his stocking. And the next day, when my mom and Mr. B. were over for dinner, he wanted to share the candy from his stocking with them. So he's back in Christmas season favor. And even though he's clearly a big kid and capable of sneaky doings, he's still a little kid, too, and sweet as ever. Most of the time.