spera kids christmas tree

The Spera kids decorate the Christmas tree, with minimal breakage and fighting.

Celia, my 5-year-old, recently posed a question weighing heavily on her kindergarten brain: “Why do we not get on the naughty list?”

Which prompted me to wonder: What has she not told me about?

She harbored genuine concerns about the qualifications for Santa’s naughty list, on account of the season and her general demeanor.

I wouldn’t describe Celia and her siblings as naughty. Spirited, yes. But not naughty.

Just in case, she divined a silver lining in what bad children find in their stockings: Coal, she noted, can double as chalk.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, we encountered Santa, or at least one of his convincing doppelgangers, in the lobby of a performing arts center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The normally fearless Celia would not approach him. She didn’t want to hear any bad news about her naughty/nice status.

By contrast, older sister Sophie stepped right up to St. Nick and asked for a cat. Santa, in an artful dodge, explained that he makes toys, not life. For a cat, she’d have to ask her parents.

And that, she already knew, was a nonstarter.

At age 10, Sophie is still willing to play the Santa game, to an extent. But she’s wavering. Kids at school — why is it always kids at school? — have shared their doubts about the whole deal.

Sophie has inquired about whether her mother and I really eat the cookies left out for Santa on Christmas Eve. If so, we’d be doing the Big Guy a favor — his sugar intake is off the charts. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as diabetes.

That skepticism has seeped into our household is not altogether surprising. The kids are growing up fast.

Sam, now 7, finally lost his  first baby tooth — one of his two front teeth, no less — in early December. But he hasn’t asked Santa for a replacement. He’s proud of the gap that makes him look like a mixed martial arts fighter following a particularly unfortunate shift in the octagon.

Sophie has passed a major milestone on the path to womanhood, one involving anxiety and physical discomfort: She got her ears pierced.

Friends in her grade, meanwhile, are starting to hit other, more dramatic developmental milestones.

Celia, at 5, is still years away from any such changes. Gazing in a mirror at her topless self, she observed, “I don’t have boobs yet, but I have nipples!”

Still, Celia says she “can’t wait until I’m a teenager and I can go wherever I want in the French Quarter.”

Her father certainly can wait — forever, really — for that day to arrive.

Big sister Sophie will be there soon enough. Always eager to accessorize, she tried on a pair of her mother’s sunglasses. “I look so old,” she decided. “And it’s not a good old. It’s, like, Daddy old.”

Tragic.

For the first time, old Daddy did not hang a single ornament on the family Christmas tree. The kids handled the decorating, with minimal breakage and only periodic fights.

One battle erupted between Celia and Sam over whose stocking would reside next to their mother’s. My stocking, meanwhile, hung forlorn and alone at the far end of the bookcase. Our kids intuitively knew to align themselves with the parent who makes Christmas happen.

In the years before our offspring arrived, my wife and I would leisurely decorate the tree while drinking wine and listening to Harry Connick Jr.’s first Christmas album (much better than his second). Afterward, we’d bask in the lights and serenity.

What was wrong with that scenario? Absolutely nothing.

Christmas with three young children is bigger, messier, louder. It’s also a huge responsibility.

Parents shape their kids’ childhood memories, and not just at Christmas. We sketch the first memories on a blank-slate brain, memories that will last a lifetime.

Kids simply can’t comprehend how short childhood is. Its precious, priceless freedom from responsibility is fleeting. They’ll want that freedom back one day, after it’s too late.

For now, it’s up to us, and Santa, to deliver on Christmas for Sophie, Sam and Celia (sorry, guys, no cats).

My present? I’ll take this one last Christmas where my kids will all still truly be kids.

Staff writer Keith Spera chronicles his parenting adventures in the occasional 'Parental Advisory' column. Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.

Keith Spera writes about music, culture and his kids.