• Washington Post

When Santa Claus’s Magic Is in Jeopardy, These Parents Know How to Save It

Guiomar Barbi
Guiomar Barbi was gifted this Victorian elf 15 years ago when she decided that he was Panfene, Santa Claus’s Italian-speaking helper, pictured here with her two children. The elf sits and observes the family in their Chevy Chase kitchen every December.

The Washington Post believes in Santa, but this story may be best for readers 12 and up. Parents may want to read before deciding whether to share with their children.

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Telltale signs of Santa Claus’s visit appear every Dec. 25, from cookie crumbs near empty milk glasses to carrot stems littered around suspicious sleigh tracks. There’s the crinkle of special wrapping paper and the mailing of wish-filled letters. There’s holiday magic, tradition – and, sometimes, an ample dash of creativity.

We asked readers about the most inspired ways they’ve given Santa a helping hand on his busiest night of the year. Just like St. Nick himself, they delivered. In stories ranging from sweet to silly, parents told us of ideas that turned into long-running family traditions, became tales passed down for generations or simply made them Christmas heroes.

They helped Santa and his reindeer leave their tracks. They carved potatoes into hoofed shapes, dipped them in mud and left boots coated in ashes next to the fireplace. Many saved the day following last-minute mishaps – buying new presents after forgetting the real ones at home and rewrapping gifts that were seen by prying eyes.

Some parents go even further.

From creating new Christmas characters to sourcing actual deer poop, these are stories about keeping the magic of the season alive – not just for the kids, but for the entire family.

Landing on roofs is dangerous work

The year was 1989, and for the first time, Cathie Cummins’s daughters, Sarah, 6, and Heather, 10, would have a white Christmas in Roanoke.

“The girls were really excited,” Cummins told The Post. “They said, ‘Oh boy! We’ll be able to see that Santa Claus lands on the roof because he’ll mess up the snow!’”

Cummins was not ready to give Santa’s story up after years of leaving reindeer-chewed carrots in the yard and sooty footprints on the carpet, she said. The old man dressed in red meant as much to her as to her daughters. She had to pull this one off.

Cummins had her suspicions that Heather, her oldest daughter, no longer believed in Santa but kept the secret alive for her younger sister.

“These girls are going to be critical,” Cummins told herself. “These girls are smart.”

So around midnight on Christmas Eve that year, Cummins climbed out of her bedroom window and made her way to the roof. She had to stay close to the wall of her porch so she would leave no trace that mom – not Santa – had crawled out of her bedroom window, Cummins said.

Then, Cummins lunged over to the garage’s roof, where the slant combined with the snow proved slippery.

“At that point I realized, ‘This is dangerous,’” she recounted.

She opted not to stand up and crawled around in the snow, “messing it up, hoping that it was authentic enough.”

“I couldn’t do reindeer or sleigh tracks, but I figured Santa must have been stomping around up there,” Cummins said.

Her husband helped her climb back inside their bedroom, and she used a push broom to clean the evidence.

“The girls were really impressed the next morning,” said Cummins, now 57. “I did what I had to do. That’s all.”

Her youngest daughter was so convinced after seeing the roof that morning that she clung to Santa’s story far longer than her friends.

“She has children of her own now, so she’s doing the same things I did,” Cummins said.

– Andrea Salcedo

Reindeers leave the grossest evidence

Sandy and Bob Doyle knew they needed evidence to keep the spirit of Santa alive for their 5-year-old daughter, Kait. In other words, they needed to find deer poop – and a lot of it.

It was 1990 in Winnetka, Ill., and the Doyles had maintained the idea to their children that Santa was 100 percent real. Even though Kait never got the snake she asked for each year, she dutifully wrote a detailed letter to Santa every holiday season – and Kris Kringle always enjoyed the cookies and milk left out for him. Though when he wrote back to Kait, the handwriting looked a lot like her father’s, mother Sandy Doyle recalled.

But the Christmas magic was running on empty after a brother of one of Kait’s friends told her that Santa didn’t exist. When Kait told her parents what she had heard, the Doyles were not happy with the Grinch trying to steal their daughter’s Christmas.

“I was exploding on the inside, but I couldn’t show it,” said Sandy, now 72.

Kait’s parents realized they had to do something extreme to convince their daughter that Santa was indeed real. Then, it hit them: Go to the golf course. They lived near a golf course, and Bob knew there were a lot of deer in the area that loved to eat tulips.

“He just knew by walking around that there was a lot of deer poop available,” Sandy said.

So, on Christmas Eve, Bob took a plastic bag and shovel and wandered around the golf course in search of as much deer doo-doo as he could find.

After Kait went to bed, they put the deer droppings and a few bells on the roof, which her bedroom window overlooked. They even used a hockey stick to put “hoofprints” into the half-inch of snow covering the roof.

On Christmas morning, Kait saw her miracle. After opening her presents, Kait had two phone calls to make, Sandy recalled.

The first was to WGN, informing the Chicago TV station that she had “evidence that Santa was real.” The second was to her friend. “Your brother’s wrong!” she said, according to Sandy. “I have evidence!”

– Timothy Bella

A 100-year-old Italian elf

Guiomar Barbi’s grandmother needed to add cheer to the war-ravaged holiday season while taking care of five young children, so she dreamed up a new family tradition.

Panfene, Santa Claus’s Italian-speaking helper, came to life during the Second World War. He lives in the North Pole, but the idea was conceived in Grotte di Castro, a small Italian village. Like Santa, Panfene listens closely to children’s Christmas wish lists, but his ability to converse in Italian makes him extra special for Chevy Chase-based Barbi. The elf has now enthralled three generations of her family: Barbi’s father, herself and now her two children.

When her father was growing up in Italy, Barbi’s great uncle would pretend to be Panfene for him. Later, after Barbi’s family moved from Italy to the United States, Barbi’s father asked one of his brothers to fill in the seasonal role for his children and other kids in the family.

“For my father it was a way to keep our culture alive and form a connection for me with my family in Italy,” Barbi told The Post. “His brother would call me every December from Rome and say he is Santa’s special elf who speaks Italian.”

The tradition continues. Every December, Barbi’s children wait for Panfene to call and ask what they want for Christmas. Panfene is excellent at his job.

Over the years, Barbi’s children have wondered if there is an elf who speaks Italian, why there isn’t one who speaks Spanish? And if the same elf has listened to their grandfather, mother and now them, he must be about 100 years old, the kids have realized. So far, Barbi has explained away the questions through magic.

“I just want to keep the magic alive for my kids for as long as I can,” she said. “I hope it’s something they pass on to their kids one day.”

– Maham Javaid

A tale from the old country

Saint Nicholas lives in the minds of countless German children. Like Santa Claus, he rewards children for their good behavior and is generous with his gifts, so the story goes, Janna Soeder tells her 4-year-old.

There was once a poor family in Saint Nicholas’s community, Soeder said: a man with three daughters whom he struggled to provide for. When Saint Nicholas learned of their struggle, he decided to throw gold down their chimney three nights in a row. The family would wake up in the morning, wowing at the treasure that had fallen into their boots that sat by the fireplace.

Now, on the night of Dec. 5, German children everywhere, including Soeder’s son, clean out their shoes and place them outside, hoping to be gifted a treasure themselves.

A few weeks later, something else – or someone else – shinnies down the chimney to leave goodies, Soeder has told her son, blending the tale with that of the American Santa Claus.

The tale of one merry, generous man buoys the other for Soeder’s son. Maybe the American Santa Claus and the German Saint Nicholas are brothers, Soeder’s son has decided. Or perhaps they’re the same person. Or perhaps they’re good friends.

But one thing is certain: Their collective existence makes for an extra magical December every year. And if Soeder’s son ever asks outright whether both men exist, she won’t shy away from the truth, she says.

The magic doesn’t lie in either of the stories’ reality, Soeder said. It comes from the joy in telling it, and perhaps suspending reality, even for a moment.

– Anumita Kaur

If you try to outsmart Santa, you’ll get coal

Seven-year-old Alex Adkins found Santa’s presents Dec. 23, 2012, while playing hide and seek in his grandparents’ Virginia basement, his aunt Traci Crockett told The Post.

Alex confided the discovery in his not-so-trustworthy sister. Well, the secret didn’t last too long.

That same day, as the adults were in the middle of holiday preparations, Alex’s sister told their Nana and mother.

On Christmas Eve, Crockett recounted, a concerned Alex ran up to Nana when everyone was opening up their presents. But the gifts Alex had earlier spotted were nowhere to be seen.

“Nana, something’s wrong,” Alex said. “There were some gifts in the closet.”

Crockett recounted Nana responding, “You’re welcome to take another look if you think you saw something there.”

Nana had replaced the presents with two small lumps of coal. (The picture captured by Crockett pretty much says it all.)

Alex went to bed that night worried he might get more coal the next morning.

What he didn’t know is that Santa had rewrapped each of Alex’s presents in new wrapping paper with the help of the family. Alex, now 18, learned his lesson about spoiling Santa’s surprises, Crockett said.

“The photo truly cannot be matched and is quite possibly one of my greatest accomplishments,” Crockett said.

– Andrea Salcedo

Traci Crockett
Alex Adkins, 7 at the time, holds two lumps of coal from his Nana, who is smirking in the back.

A Muslim Santa to keep the magic alive

Only a handful of kids around the country know of Eid al-Claus, Santa Claus’s Muslim cousin, but those who do are certain he arrives in the middle of the night, in a presents-laden sleigh pulled across the sky by camels.

Instead of milk and cookies by the fireplace, Santa’s distant family member is greeted by milk and dates, and instead of red, he dons a green suit, according to Imran Eba, a resident of Newton, Mass.

Eid al-Claus was born out of a holiday tragedy. Almost 15 years ago, when Eba’s firstborn asked whether Santa was coming to their house that Winter, he plainly told her Santa isn’t real, he said. The 4-year-old prematurely burst Santa’s bubble in front of her friends and soured Christmas for much of their neighborhood.

“That felt harsh, and I realized there had to be a better way to explain why Santa skips our home every December,” he said. “In a way that secures fantasy for all the kids.”

The next year Eba pitched a jolly, big-bellied, brown Eid al-Claus to his four daughters; he doesn’t visit before Christmas, but arrives on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday to mark the end of Ramadan.

“My daughters ate up the magic of Eid al-Claus in a way that I didn’t know was possible,” he said. “The lore has now spread to their cousins.”

Instead of snail mail, the magical being receives wish lists via email. Many details about Eid al-Claus’s life are still unclear. He doesn’t have a physical address, and Eba isn’t sure exactly how he is related to Santa, but Eba said that the “lores build over time.”

“Eid al-Claus allowed me to give the girls a childhood filled with curiosity, joy and innocence,” Eba said. “He lets them maintain a world of fantasy.”

– Maham Javaid

A special pen for Santa’s letters

Anna Sousa kept the pen and notepad hidden in her desk.

The utensils came out only once a year: on Christmas Eve.

They weren’t anything too special, but still, she created magic.

It was a fine-point Pentel pen, with teal ink, gifted to Sousa by her parents when she was about 10. After becoming a mother, she reserved its use for the snowy pad of paper it was tucked away with, hidden all year at her work desk. The notepad’s pages tore off along the top, shimmery on one side and nearly translucent in appearance.

After Sousa’s three children went to bed – a plate of cookies and a glass of milk set on the table for Santa – Sousa sneaked out her tools.

To each child, she wrote an individual note, cloaking her identity by writing with her non-dominant hand. She thanked them for the delicious treats and said something unique to each. She drew holly leaves with berries along the edges, before signing off with a flourish: From, Santa.

Every Christmas morning, before checking gifts or stockings, her kids sped to their notes from Santa, sitting beside the cookie crumbs and emptied glass of milk. Their eyes glistened as they absorbed the messages Santa had left, Sousa recalled, convinced the jolly old man had indeed sat and feasted on their baked offering the night prior. The children stowed their notes away for safe keeping, touched by the personal attention from Santa.

Years later, Sousa’s children, now in their 20s, still have every single note from Santa. They suspect the notes were from her, Sousa said. But they aren’t quite certain.

And Sousa will never tell.

“They still want to know who did that. I refuse to tell them,” she laughed. “It could’ve been me, could’ve been my mom, could’ve been anyone. They never saw the paper, they never saw the ink.”

– Anumita Kaur

A magic elf sapped of its powers, then saved by Santa

Shana Schwarz came into the living room to see her 3-year-old daughter crying next to the Christmas tree. The magical Elf on the Shelf – one of many small plush beings Santa dispatches to monitor children before the special day – was on the floor.

Anna had touched the elf, which she had named Jasmine. According to Santa’s rules, contact with a mere mortal saps the small elf of its powers and ability to fly back to the North Pole. Surely that would mean Anna, Shana’s oldest daughter, would be on Santa’s naughty list.

The mother had just finished changing the diaper of one of her twin babies on this December morning a decade ago in Scottsdale, Ariz. Anna, in pigtails and jammies, was staring down at the elf she’d knocked off the Christmas tree.

“I touched Jasmine,” Anna told her mom, sobbing. “I ruined everything.”

She couldn’t help herself. She just wanted to cuddle with Jasmine, whom she wrote letters to every day and sometimes confessed to that she did not eat her broccoli. Jasmine’s job was to tell Santa whether Anna had been good, and Anna wanted to make sure the elf had all the right information.

The mother grabbed a nearby baby blanket, and, careful not to touch the elf herself, wrapped Jasmine in it.

They were headed to Santa. They were headed to the mall.

Blanket-wrapped Jasmine sat shotgun. It was early so there would be no line when they arrived.

“I’m so sorry, Santa,” Anna said once they did. “Is there anything you can do for Jasmine? Can you forgive me?”

Shana explained to mall Santa that her daughter had loved the elf so much that she mistakenly touched it, but she was a good girl and wondered if Santa, the most magical man in the world, could give Jasmine her powers back.

“Hello, Jasmine, it’s so good to see you,” Santa said to the elf without missing a beat. “Anna, Jasmine tells me what a good girl and big sister you are. Of course, I can help.”

He unwrapped the blanket and whispered something magical into the elf’s ear.

“She can fly again,” he explained, warning Anna not to touch Jasmine any more. Anna agreed, and they snapped a picture.

Anna would continue writing about her days and dreams to Santa every year until she turned 10. She’s now 14. The twins are 11, and they’re still writing.

“The world can be so hard and dark,” Shana said. “If you come from a place of magic and love and generosity, that’s the only way things get better. I want my kids to remember their childhoods the way I remember mine, just that someone cared so much to make magic for me when I was a little girl.”

Every year, Shana’s family looks for Santa in the neighborhood. One adult always stays behind to fill each child’s stockings while they’re away and recounts how they yet again just missed Santa.

“You have to get older, but you don’t have to grow up,” Shana said. “You don’t have to let go of that magic, in believing in things you can’t see. It’s the best part of being alive.”

– Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff