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A Father Looks Back at the Joys of the Season with His Sons

Now a grandfather, Rick Hamlin reflects on how faith played an important role during Christmas time with his kids.

Rick Hamlin’s two sons and their children, Christmas 2021; Photo Courtesy Rick Hamlin

Now that my two sons are fathers themselves, with babes in their arms, I yearn to remind them of how Christmas is that season of the impossible. How full of opportunities it is for parents to show their children what it means to hold on to faith. But then again, didn’t my sons experience this firsthand?

They saw their dad setting out candles in the windows soon as Advent hit, their mother still ladling out the last of the Thanksgiving turkey soup. Every night, they watched expectantly as I plugged in the lights, our family bathing in the glow that said, “Christmas is coming. Christmas is almost here.”

We took down the box marked “Christmas crèche,” and with help, the boys set up the painted wooden figurines: Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and their sheep, the wise men bearing gifts. The latter they positioned across the room from the stable so that we could move them a little closer, day by day, on their way to Bethlehem.

The manger was at the center of everything, but it stayed empty for now. “Why is it empty, Dad?” they asked, even though they knew the answer, holding the infant in swaddling clothes in their little hands.

“The baby doesn’t come until Christmas,” I said. They liked to hear me say it.

Waiting, more waiting, but waiting was part of the joy, the excitement, the sheer anticipation of the Christmas story unfolding. Taking it all on faith, like accepting without reservation that Santa would bring the things they asked for—toy race cars, a Lego castle, baseball mitts, that video game (to be played only after homework was done)—and things they never expected, appearing like magic on Christmas morn.

The tree had to be fetched from the Vermont farmers who brought fragrant pines and firs to the big city and sold them down at the corner. The boys helped their dad pick out the perfect one, carrying it back up the hill with him and setting it up in the living room. With their parents, they festooned it with lights and ornaments, including ones they had crafted themselves: a string of dyed noodles, felt stockings, a tinseled star for the top.

Then they stepped back, admiring their work, imagining what the tree would look like with the packages underneath bearing their names—Tim, William—with tags signed, “from Santa.”

Until then there was the Advent calendar with a window to open each day, and a wreath on the dining room table with four candles to light, one for each week of waiting. There were the carols the boys sang at the piano next to their father as he plunked out the notes to “The First Noel,” “Away in a Manger” and “Joy to the World.” And all that preparation for the pageant at church. Every year brought different parts to play, from William flapping homemade angel wings to a well-fleeced Tim baaing like a sheep as he scampered up and down the sanctuary aisle.

Christmas Eve was on its way, the Savior to be born in Bethlehem and Santa coming down the chimney with his bag of gifts. Even if we didn’t have a chimney in our New York City apartment, Santa would find a way.

The boys put out a glass of milk for him and hung up their stockings, knitted by their grandmother with their names on top so Santa would know whose was whose. The last thing before bed was reading “Twas the night before Christmas…” and the story from the Bible of “the shepherds out in their fields abiding their flock by night.” Visions of sugarplums—and video games—filled the boys’ heads as they fell asleep and their parents did the work of Santa, being sure to finish that glass of milk for him.

Morning activity came with the dawn, the stockings full, the rug under the tree hidden by bows and boxes. Their parents watched joyfully as the boys unwrapped each present, marveling at how Santa knew their hearts’ desires. Prayers answered, faith fulfilled. See, it was all true.

But I’ll never forget that Christmas Day, after all the gifts had been opened and five-year-old Tim and I were taking down the trash. He paused on the stairs and looked up at me with trusting eyes. “Daddy,” he said, “I know that you and Mom are Santa. Is that true?”

I wondered what I should say. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I didn’t want to fib. “Yes,” I said, “we are.”

He took it in, then paused.

“You’re teasing me,” he said, not ready to let go of the impossible. He was practicing how to hold on to the true faith he would grow into. A faith that would never disappoint. We hugged and went back to the tree, to the lights, to the crèche which now had the long-awaited babe in it.

Believe, always believe, I want to say now to Tim and William, as they hold their sons in their arms. It’s never too early to show your children how.

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