The first gift I received from Santa Claus was a life-sized plush of Pooh when I was five years old. I never actually met him except for the stories of Papa and Mama. They told me he was this old fat bearded man in a red suit who travels around the world on Christmas eve using a sleigh pulled by reindeer to deliver presents to good children.

The next year, I was celebrating Christmas in our azotea with a bunch of Legos spread on the entire floor, constructing oddly shaped structures from the blocks of green, yellow, blue, and red. I didn’t remember writing a letter about wanting interlocking plastic bricks, but I was happy to wake up with a bag of Legos underneath our Christmas tree. Mama just simply told me it came from Santa Claus.

The following year, I waited for his gift, again.

Whenever my mother said it was time to bring out the old boxes from our bodega where the Christmas decorations were stored, I knew Santa was coming. I would help my mother and my sisters shake off the dust and dirt lurking in the cones of the Christmas tree. I would polish the Christmas balls and arrange them by color. I never did the decoration. Mama never trusted my creative instincts, but I got to set up the Belen underneath the tree. It was an antiquated paper folding of the nativity scene. I loved to name the “characters” surrounding the barn where Jesus was supposedly born. And there were animals, too, like llamas, goats, and sheep.

Aside from the excitement of Christmas lights illuminating our garden and the decorations inside our house, the ensemble of kids my age singing Christmas carols was another tradition of our holiday season. The children sing psalms to celebrate the birth of Jesus and songs awaiting the coming of Santa Claus. Recycled cans of milk and tambourines fashioned from bottle caps helped the kids make makeshift music. I always wanted to join them, but Mama would caution me about catching a cold. “Gusto mo bang lamunin ng lamig?” was her usual response. Whenever I insisted, she would pull out the Santa card and tell me, “Sige ka, hindi ka bibigyan ng laruan ni Santa.”

Mama warned that Santa wouldn’t visit home if I was naughty. That Santa had a point system. He gave good points to children who were kind to their parents, siblings, and neighbors, and took away points for every bad action done. Those who had little to no points ended up on the “naughty list.” I always tried to behave, doing my share of the household chores, making sure to finish my assignments, and refraining from playing outside at night. For me, that was what Santa would have wanted.

Days before Christmas, it was time to write a letter to Santa Claus. It needed to be beautiful, something to make him smile. I would get a sheet from my pad paper, bring out a box of Crayola, and the stickers I bought for P12. There needed to be a drawing of a Christmas tree at the center and a star on top of it. Boxes of gifts wrapped in ribbon should be in the letter, too.

“Dear Santa…,” the letter would begin. I’d start by narrating how good I had been the past year and persuade him that I deserved a Christmas present. Then, the part where I’d tell him what I wanted. It was 2005 and I was seven years old when I wrote about wanting a remote-controlled toy truck. My neighbors had the same toy and I wanted one for myself. The letter ended with “Merry Christmas!”

On Dec. 24, I knew Santa Claus would be arriving, manning the cart filled with presents pulled by reindeer. Hours before his arrival, it was time to honor traditions. “Huwag kalimutang magbitin ng medyas sa Christmas tree,” Papa reminded me and my siblings. The larger the sock, the more gifts it could fit. Papa joked about hanging a rice sack instead to get as many presents as possible.

After dinner, while waiting for Santa, I’d play with my siblings. But as the night became deeper, there was as yet no Santa. I thought, maybe he was still in other parts of the world. I waited and waited until Mama convinced me to sleep. She said she would wait for Santa instead.

That night, I woke up when I heard my father climb up the stairs toward the room. I was half-asleep, but I heard the voice of Papa asking Mama, “Nabili mo ba ‘yung gusto niya?” Mama replied, “Hindi. Wala akong nahanap.”

I woke up with a heavy feeling the next day.

Santa was one of the first heartbreaks of my life. Not because he wasn’t real, but because I placed him at the center of Christmas when he is nothing but a story. All the lights in our house, the tree, the Belen, all the gifts, and the children singing melodies of the season, I thought they were made to celebrate Santa’s arrival. But I was wrong. They were meant for something bigger–to help us rejoice in the beauty of family and the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course, this was hard to process, especially for a seven-year-old like me. It was difficult letting go of someone I had adored for years. But Christmas does deserve a meaning bigger than the arrival of an old fat bearded man in a red suit giving presents from a list of kind children.

I didn’t blame Mama and Papa for letting me hold on to such a belief. I was a mere kid, and I didn’t know any better. Indeed, Santa was not real, but he was to the seven-year-old me. Pooh, the sack of Legos, and all the other things I received on Christmas may not be his doing, but they were all true, too. They reminded me of my parent’s love. And that gave me something to look forward to every single day. It made me realize that the holiday season is about sharing the joy of life.

The next Christmas, I didn’t wait for Santa. He wasn’t coming anymore.

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