the secret of santa, the magic of my mom

As a child, my belief in Santa Claus was unshakeable. No matter what creeping doubts I might have heard expressed by my friends and classmates, or what cruel taunts may have been shouted by the bigger kids as they streaked down our primary hallways, my certainty regarding the man in the red suit never wavered. I credit this to a combination of three things:

  1. The bemused skepticism I felt for most of my fellow elementary students back then, like a penguin who had accidentally ended up among a flock of flamingoes. We had so little in common in terms of activities and interests and disposition that it seemed only natural those differences would extend to our metaphysical beliefs.
  2. The tandem release of The Santa Clause and the Miracle on 34th Street remake, both of which made pretty sound and convincing arguments in defense of the big guy’s existence.
  3. My mom.

Obviously it is widely understood that moms everywhere are reliable Christmas enthusiasts, but I am confident that mine belongs in the top 0.01%. She has the decorating instincts of a Hallmark set designer, complete with linens and towels that are exclusive to Christmas. Most days in December she can be found baking one of her signature confections, while singing along loudly with Neil Diamond– you can often catch her dancing along as well. She has been known to keep poinsettias alive all year round.

But more than her enthusiasm for the trappings, it is my mom’s sincere belief in the magic of the season, in its endless imaginative possibilities, that separates her from all the rest. Most parents teach their kids about Santa Claus, largely as an insurance policy against bad or bratty behavior– but do they all write lengthy, personalized letters that purport to be from Santa himself on beautiful wintery stationary, intercepting whatever rote response Canada Post sends back to all kids who address a note to postal code H0H 0H0? I spent many years feeling extremely flattered that Santa took the time to follow along with all of my violin lessons and dance recitals and other little life events, enough for him to make knowledgeable references in his annual correspondence. With this kind of proof literally in my hand, what choice did I have but to believe?

baby Ainsley was easily impressed by Charlie Brown style Christmas twigs. Such was my mom’s power.

Mail fraud was only the beginning for my mom. Her Christmas coup d’état was convincing my sister and I that she, for reasons unexplained and through means undefined, was able to psychically communicate directly with Santa Claus. Incredibly, this was not something we questioned, but accepted on its face. Modern parents who are going to elaborate lengths with their Elves on Shelves in order to convince their kids that Santa has an eye on things could save themselves a lot of trouble by just projecting my mom’s unimpeachable confidence and declaring that they’ve got Santa-specific ESP. Maybe this won’t work for all children– maybe my sister and I were uniquely slack-jawed idiots– or maybe you also need to have Liz MacIntyre’s inventiveness and improv skills. No matter what question we threw at her, my mom always had a Santa-ready answer. What were his favorite kind of cookies? Shortbread. Did he have a favorite reindeer? Absolutely not, he loved them all equally. Had Santa seen Aladdin? Yes, and the Genie made him laugh.

Perhaps the most important fact we gleaned from this mystical hotline of my mother’s was that Santa himself did not do mall appearances. Considering we knew him to be a titan of the toy industry, this was understandable, and of course it made perfect sense that he would send elf envoys in his place. While we waited in line for our pictures, my mom would entertain us with our mall elf’s particular backstory– Santa was a busy man, but never too busy to chat with my mom, obviously. Some elves were rookies, some were old hands, some desperately missed the North Pole while others considered the shops to be a nice break from toy-making. All of their names began with the letter E. Earl. Edwin. Edgar. Elijah. When it came time to step up to the throne and meet them, we were always instructed to treat our elf delegates like we believed they were really Santa, so as not to imply that they were doing a bad job and hurt their feelings. My mom thought of everything.

But even she couldn’t prepare for the disaster that was one of my dad’s office Christmas parties, an event whose organizers surely meant well but which quickly devolved into chaos. Mom must have picked up on this energy early, because she warned us that the “Santa” on duty, whose real name was Elliott, was one of the least experienced elves in the workshop. That this was in fact his first job, and that if he made mistakes, Santa wanted us to please go easy on him. And let me tell you, mistakes were made. Kids were called by the wrong names, or given the wrong toys, or forgotten entirely. I found myself the proud owner of an off-brand GI Joe. For a child that never ventured far from the pink aisles of Toys R Us, this was less than ideal.

Spirits were not high when we left that party, though our mom assured us that Elliott would probably be taken off the party circuit for awhile. I don’t know what time it would have been exactly, because to a little kid anything past 5 o’clock feels like late night, and in December in Toronto everything past 4 o’clock looks like it. But this was the hour that something magic happened.

As I walked behind my parents, holding onto GI Shmoe and trying not to sulk, a voice called out: Ainsley? I looked up. My parents looked up. There was a man in a department store window, dressed in a Santa suit. He beckoned for us to come inside. I’ve heard you’ve had a rough evening. Why don’t you come talk to me? The store was either closed or just about to be, but still I was invited to do the full Santa visit. I perched on his knee. I admired his suit. I described whatever Barbie I wanted that year. Without a lineup of kids waiting behind me, our conversation wasn’t rushed in any way, and I could tell without any backstory from my mom that this was one of the North Pole’s top notch delegates, he was so thoughtful and kind, and knew exactly what to say.

Afterwards, when we got back to the car I remembered to ask my mom, hey, what was that one’s name?

She looked me right in the eyes. Ainsley, that was the real Santa.

me, my consolation Barbie, & “the real Santa Claus”

Everything about that memory is a golden kind of hazy to me now, in the way that most memories you make as a kid tend to be. I’ve tried to pry actual logic-based answers from my mom in the years since– did she know the man? Had she called ahead? Was there some kind of microphone system that enabled him to hear our conversation, to learn my name? Did she hire an actor? (You’ve read enough by now to agree that sounds like a length she would go to.) She has never wavered. She insists that everything about that chance encounter was as wondrous and mysterious to her and my dad as it was to me.

I choose to believe her, because believing in my mom has always been easy for me. She’s the kind of person who leaves a glittering impression on everyone, who makes ordinary days feel special and difficult times feel manageable. She has an infinite capacity for thoughtfulness, for making people feel loved. There’s nothing she likes better than to make people laugh, especially herself. She still thinks of everything. And she continues to make the Christmas season feel like it’s full of miraculous potential for our whole family. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth is Santa’s most magical elf of all.

9 thoughts on “the secret of santa, the magic of my mom

  1. Elf “E”lizabeth really modelled that Christmas is a frame of mind. She is a -do what you have to do to help improve another persons’s situation.

    Only she could get away with mail Freud, stretching the truth, story telling, trouble shooting, Character witness judgement of elves too

    You have to be amazed that all of this extended communication happened well before cell phone use and social media.

    My hypotheses is that Santa Liz rushed a head and outfitted herself in a magical suit. It was that very moment that the true feeling of Christmas came alive!

    Thank you Ainsley for the glimpse of your Christmas experience with Santa over your childhood. You allowed us the capability to see what you saw and to give context of your powerful experience with your one and only Elf Elizabeth. Very moving.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m bawling! Happy bawling! Elizabeth is without a doubt Santa’s most magical elf all year long. We are blessed to have this special elf in our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh Ainsley, what a BEAUTIFUL tribute to your beautiful mother. And every single word you wrote about her character is absolutely true…especially, “She has an infinite capacity for thoughtfulness, for making people feel loved”. You are right about that, as well as all your other descriptions of her character as well. You are indeed a gifted writer, Ainsley. Don’t ever stop!
    Auntie Sharon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my gosh, thank you so much for writing all of these lovely things Sharon! This was definitely one of the easiest things I’ve ever written, as you know my mom is a pretty unique character, and it was so much fun to tell a tiny piece of her story. I’m so glad you think I captured her well and that you enjoyed reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am not sure who to admire more here, Liz for her incredible spirit, humor and love, or you for writing such an incredible post ♥️
    Thank you Ainsley for a wonderful Christmas gift, for that is what this story really is. A Christmas gift to all of us 🎁🎄♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a wonderfully kind thing to say, thank you so much! The best part of writing this post has been seeing how many people appreciate the qualities I have always admired in my mom, so the gift goes both ways for sure. Thank you for taking the time to read, I hope you have the merriest Christmas!

      Liked by 1 person

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