The Stevenson family has a special way of transitioning their kids from receiving from Santa to becoming Santa that stretches back generations.
It started during the Great Depression, when Millie Caldwell and her parents lived in the old family farmhouse in South Dakota with her grandparents and her uncles. Christmas was approaching, and Millie’s grandfather pulled her aside for a talk.
“You’ve been growing, and you’ve gotten taller and your heart’s gotten bigger,” George Edward Stevenson said. “In fact, your heart has gotten so big that you’re ready to be a Santa Claus.”
Six-year-old Millie couldn’t have been more confused. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are a lot of different people dressed up as Santa out there,” he said. “Some of your friends might have even told you that there’s no such thing as Santa. That’s because they aren’t ready to become Santa. But you are.”
She still didn’t follow.
“What’s the best thing about Santa?” Grandpa said.
“Getting cookies?” Millie said.
“Everyone likes Santa?”
“He gets to make everyone happy.”
“Right. He gets the great feeling of having done something for someone else. And now you’re ready for your first job as Santa.”
“You need to pick someone who you think could use a present. Something to show them they’re loved and to make them happy.”
Millie picked her grandmother, who loved flowers. She found a potted plant for her, and to go with it she printed “FROM SANTA” on a small piece of paper. Thus the family tradition of turning the children into Santas began. It was Millie’s grandfather’s way of shifting her attention away from receiving gifts during those lean times and toward a different kind of gift—his way of showing the children what they could share with others at a time when they were so poor and his way of cultivating appreciation for what they did have. It also softened the blow when Millie inevitably lost her belief in Santa Claus.
In the decades that have followed, the tradition has been handed down from generation to generation.
“It’s a special way of transitioning the kids from receiving from Santa to becoming Santa,” says Leslie Rush of El Paso, Texas, Millie’s daughter-in-law. “This way, the Santa construct is not a lie that gets discovered but an unfolding series of good deeds and Christmas spirit. The perfect time is whenever you see your child beginning to suspect that there is no Santa.”
When her own children started to suspect, Leslie would take them to a local coffee shop, order some treats and have a whispered conversation as if letting them in on a secret. In the case of her oldest son, Adam, he chose a family friend going through rough times for one of his first gifts.
“They had nothing to give their daughter, and Adam said, ‘I want to give her my bike.’ So my husband and Adam worked on the bike—polished up the chrome, painted fenders and put Armor All on the tires. Made it look gorgeous. Handgrips with streamers and a bow. They put it in the back of our truck and drove over there and left it on the back porch. The day after Christmas, we went over and Sabrina just grabbed Adam and said, ‘Look what I got! Look what Santa got me!’ And the look on Adam’s face was great. The rule is, you can’t tell, because this is unselfish giving. He was bursting and didn’t tell.”
Now a father, Adam let his son Tristan in on the secret a few years ago, and Tristan got his sister a huge stuffed dragon. So the ranks of Santa’s little helpers continue to grow and continue to celebrate a different kind of holiday magic—one they make themselves.
This story about the true meaning of Christmas is from the book, HumanKind, which is a National Bestseller filled with true stories about how a small deed can make a world of difference. “Elegant and wise” (Deepak Chopra), “The most uplifting and life-affirming book in years” (Forbes). Check out Humankind: Changing the World One Small Act At a Time.
A Wall Street Journal and USA Today Bestseller