As Christmas nears, Leslie Butterfield Harrop offers wisdom about how to navigate the combination of Santa, special needs, and the single mom.

Santa, special needs and the single mom. Now that’s a combination too often overlooked during the Christmas season. Guest blogger Lesley Butterfield Harrop explains her complicated relationship with St. Nick in light of her son’s special needs and how she navigates the holidays as a single mom and caregiving parent.

Being a single mom for the past couple years after being married for the majority of my adult life, I have gained a new perspective on a lot of things that may seem rather ho ho, ho-hum to others. Tasks as simple as hiring a home maintenance technician are all of a sudden not so simple. New requirements have surfaced; I only allow someone I can trust in my home and the person must call ahead. Getting new brakes on my car is another example; I must go to a trustworthy garage, knowing that a single woman can seem to scream “overcharge me please, because I will never suspect it.” 

But it was a surprise to me when I suddenly felt . . . different about Santa, special needs and the single mom?! 

There are many reasons for the “it’s complicated” relationship I now have with ole’ St. Nick, but don’t judge just yet, because my reasons are as simple as safety, trust, and authenticity.

  1. Safety. As a single mother, I live alone with my four young children. The very fact that a man dressed up in a red suit is permitted to enter unannounced into our home while we all sleep is, well, disturbing. Think I’m over-reacting? Yes, join the club. For an entire Christmas season, I tried to push away the feelings of discomfort, while we decorated our artificial evergreen with hand-me-down Hallmark ornaments. But, finally, it came upon a midnight clear, and it was evident that I could not normalize this scenario for my kids. It may seem silly, but really, I am fully aware of my own vulnerabilities as a single mom and so it was necessary for our family in our circumstances. 
  2. Trust. One thing that is important to me as a mother is building and enhancing the connection with my kids. I want them to feel safe and loved in our family no matter what. I did not want them to ever think I would intentionally lie to them. It stood to reason that I had trouble purposefully perpetuating pretending over focusing on the magic of the season in ways that are based in truth, symbolism, and the true meaning of Christmas. 
  3. Authenticity. My oldest son has autism spectrum disorder, a condition in which sometimes he has trouble distinguishing between reality vs. make-believe. Because of this, we aim for interactions grounded in reality and based in authenticity. That is not to say that creativity and abstract thinking isn’t important—it’s vital! We can instill all of these qualities in our kids while paying close attention to the specific needs of kiddos that have special needs. 

But before you think I have taken all the fun out of Christmas morning, let me explain how we do foster hope, magic, giving, and surprise during the holiday season. Unpacking Santa Claus has been a process for me and for my kids. We have really navigated this together and that journey has been really memorable. I don’t not do Santa, but I don’t do Santa in the commercial sense either. Instead, we focus on the three areas of meaning, miracles, and magic.

  1. Meaning. What does Santa symbolize to us? Gift-giving, hope, magic, and wonderment, along with many other amazing things! We’ve woven in new traditions that honor these values within our holiday celebrations. We know that the idea of Santa really means doing something for someone without letting them know it was you who did it. We look for opportunities to do this for friends, neighbors, and other within our community. We have a Secret Santa tradition in our own family that has become almost as beloved as Christmas morning itself! 
  2. Miracles. If you are religious, focusing on the miracles of the season can be easily incorporated into holiday celebrations, with the reading of scripture or other secular traditions, like attending midnight mass. When I was young, my mother collected all kinds of Christmas books and would display them in our home at Christmastime. Books like Christmas Oranges, Polar Express, The Velveteen Rabbit, and The Tale of Three Trees were displayed in every room. I’ve carried this tradition to my own kids and it is truly full of miraculous joy! Finding and focusing on Christmas miracles can also foster hope and resiliency in kids. 
  3. Magic. My kids know Santa as a fun, pretend character. We actively play make-believe and engage in Christmas fantasies that involve a time-traveling Santa who must wear a flame retardant suit and is able to visit all the world’s children in just a single night! Kids love mystery and wonder! You don’t have to take that away just because of a break-up with Santa. When my younger kids ask about Santa, I simply turn the question back to them, saying, “What do you think?” As kids grow, this kind of magic and mystery can grow with them, instead of being stopped and stifled as soon as they find out that big secret was a sham. We have found that there is something magical about stepping into the winter wonderland of Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and Sinterklaas. We read all sorts of Santa stories, we explore the cultural folklore, and we honor timeless traditions that fill our hearts with warmth and joy. The magic is always there, even with a pretend Santa. And kids like presents no matter who they’re from! 

Regardless of what your particular family does to celebrate the holidays, it always helps to learn about the traditions of others and to take a look at our own! When we examine why we celebrate that way we do, we can often uncover core family values that have been passed down through generations, just like the stories of St. Nick! 

Lesley Butterfield Harrop lives in the Appalachian mountains with her four children. She relishes being a mother and works to promote mindfulness and emotional intelligence within her own family. Lesley is a registered nurse by trade, with many years of experience in Community Health. She is also a freelance writer, sharing her thoughts and experiences of raising a child with special needs, navigating single motherhood after family trauma, and raising awareness of advocacy within her community.  



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