By Guest Blogger Andrea Ropko

Do you want to take the kids to see Santa tonight?

This is not an appropriate 6:12am question. My husband and I have been married for thirteen years; he should know better by now. Not only do I have no interest in anything but drinking coffee at 6am, but seeing Santa is a mixed-bag of many things I do not enjoy. Malls. Crowds. Fake Santas (as opposed to the real Santa). Waiting. Lines. Crying. My children waiting in a line. Other people’s children waiting in line. At the mall. To see fake Santa. Crying. Oh, the crying.

But my husband has been married to me for thirteen years. He knows there is a never a good time to safely pose this question. But he does it every year. And every year, we go.

If it’s everything I cannot stand, why do we go?

It is a tradition. The kids take their picture with Santa and we send it out as our yearly Christmas card. It is what we do. (Dammit.)

The beginning of this tradition was December 2006. Heath was six weeks old. The mall was the only place I could safely go with him. A dear friend of mine told me about the nursing room in Nordstrom’s. It was really not so much of a room as it was a nook off the area that held the bathroom stalls. But it had a couch. I could go there and sit on that couch and breastfeed my colicky nightmare of a baby who wouldn’t sleep anywhere except in that nursing nook. Something about the sound of flushing potties and hand dryers would lull him to sleep; and I would sleep too. My husband ending up meeting me at the mall that evening after my six-hour day in the Nordstrom Nursing Nook to do some actual Christmas present shopping. We happened to spy Santa sitting in his golden throne of a chair and surprise of all surprises, there was no line. When Mark proposed having Heath sit on Santa’s lap for a picture, I immediately said no. I had just taken Heath to the doctor that morning. I thought he was dying. It turns out he had a clogged tear duct and needed a simple ointment on the eye for the next ten days. Apparently this is a common occurrence with newborns. Who knew?

There was no way I was going to have his picture taken with Santa when his left eye was smothered in shiny goop and he was wearing pajamas, not an official Christmas with Santa outfit, and speaking of Santa, I was sure his gloves were most certainly festering with kid germs and we had already escaped disease earlier that day with the whole he’s not dying, he has a clogged tear duct deal.

I have no idea what convinced me to say yes, but I did. Now we have a picture of Santa and Heath in his pajamas with a bright erythromycin eye. Held upright, stiff as a board, because he would not sit. That sleepless year of colic and postpartum anxiety loom behind the scene of that Christmas vision.

That’s the thing about capturing those moments with Santa; they tell a complete story of our lives for that entire year.

As a matter of fact, since Christmas 2006, we have missed only one year. Christmas 2007. When my husband asked the dreaded want to go see Santa question that year, I said no and refused to budge on the matter. Heath was thirteen months old that year. I was afraid he would cry. I was afraid he would cry because jolly old St. Nick would freak him out and he would cry and become scarred for life. I was afraid he would cry and ruin everyone else’s time who was braving the line that curved its way through the enormous mall. I was afraid the picture wouldn’t turn out right, because he would cry and I would look a crappy mom who can’t get her child settled down and we would have a crappy Santa picture. The answer was definitively no.

I wish I had that picture.

Christmas 2009. Heath and Stella (ages three and one). Matching fleece pajamas. The day after that picture they were both diagnosed with the dreaded H1N1 flu virus. I was convinced it was fake Santa’s fault.

Christmas 2011. Heath, Stella, and…Forest! When did that third baby come along?!

Christmas 2013. All three kids were boycotting hair brushing and haircuts, and Heath was beginning his I wear shorts in the winter because I’m a boss streak.

The pictures have captured it all. Runny noses. Food on faces. Bad hair. Post-football practice sweat. Too small pants. Refusal to sit on Santa’s lap. Scraped knees. Missing teeth. Adult-sized teeth in a small child’s mouth. Smiles. Exasperated faces. Annoyance. Quite a few of them have at least one crying child. Those are my favorite. Not because I want my kids to feel sad or tortured or traumatized. It is just my year-end visual that says, the Ropkos made it another year, by golly! It was not perfect, and it had some flaws, but good gracious, we did it! For some reason, the picture with Santa tradition is a yearly reminder to accept, appreciate, and embrace the real that is being alive with three children.

We almost missed it last year, 2016. We’d just moved from Charlotte to Winston-Salem. I was teaching full-time for the first time in 10 years, and I just frankly wasn’t feeling terribly festive or in the mood for real. Then I got a text from a dear friend asking about our Santa picture tradition. She said Christmas doesn’t begin at her house until they’ve received the Santa card from the Ropkos. That moment highlighted an important principle that consistently surfaces in my life: some traditions simply aren’t about me.

Thanks to my sweet pal, 2016 is represented.

So this morning, when Mark asked me about visiting Santa tonight, I didn’t argue with myself for very long. I mentioned it to the kids on the way to school this morning. Forest and Stella, of course, exploded with excitement.

Heath said, “Have you ever seen anything crazier than an eleven year old sitting on Santa’s lap?”

I can hardly wait.