Seven years ago, when my son was ten, he asked me to tell him the truth about Santa. It was a hard moment, and I was never quite sure if I’d done the right thing or not. That night seemed to capture all of my complicated feelings about Christmas, and I ended up writing this piece about it.
The Boy is A Man now, a high school senior long past caring about leaving carrots for reindeer and believing in magic. But I’m not sure I am.
Anyway, ’tis the season, and as I’m hauling out ornaments, I thought I’d pull this one out of the archives.
(From December 4, 2008)
I knew it would happen sometime. I told myself to prepare. After all, he’s ten now, I said as I hauled out the Christmas ornaments box. I told myself this, and yet, it still caught me off-guard.
Last night, as the boy and I were on the couch watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, he said, “Do you believe in Santa?”
My heart was way ahead of my brain and so it began to beat faster. “Yes. Well, I believe in the spirit of Santa,” I said, hedging.
“Me, too,” he said. And then, “But some of my friends told me there is no Santa. That it’s just your parents doing those things. K. caught his parents dressing up as Santa.”
“Mmmm. Well, what do you think?”
This has come up before, and each time, the boy worked it out in the rationalization dept. of his brain and said, “I don’t care what they say. I believe in Santa.”
But now he is ten. He sat straight up and looked me in the eyes. “Are you guys Santa? I’m asking.”
“You want to know about Santa?”
“Yes. I want you to tell me. I want to know.”
He wanted to know. Even though he didn’t want to know. And, coward that I am, I didn’t want to tell him.
“Yes,” I answered softly. “We are Santa.”
He blinked several times, a ploy to keep from crying, a ploy I understand well. “Okay,” he said.
“I’m sorry, buddy. I know you must be so disappointed and hurt.”
“No. I wanted to know. It’s okay.” He lay down with his head in my lap and pretended to watch TV. I saw him wipe away a tear. Two. I felt my heart splintering like thin ice, and then I was the one blinking at the ceiling.
“Oh, Boo,” I said.
He started to cry then, the way you cry when you find out something hard and true that you both want to know and don’t want to know at the same time. The way you cry when you discover that the world is a little less magical than you believed it to be.
When he was only a tiny nugget of boy, all pinkness and curls and vehement “no’s”, I debated about whether or not to go the Santa route. I wondered whether it was cruel to lie to your child, to set up expectations that you know will have to be dashed down the road. How can you establish trust when you lie about such a thing? My husband is Jewish and I left my own church years ago; I could have foregone Christmas altogether. And yet some part of me wanted to experience the magic again. So I did it, and I honestly don’t know if I made the right choice.
I have a complicated history with Christmas. I often say that it is my least favorite holiday. But I think that’s really a defense. I loved Christmas as a kid. My mother was all about Christmas. There were traditions: advent calendars, candlelight Christmas Eve services where my dad was the minister, Christmas carols sung around a piano, sugar cookies iced with colored frosting that tasted like a stick of sugared butter in your mouth, a taste so good it seemed only to exist at Christmastime. My mother and grandparents would wrap presents with coins or beads or some such so that when you shook the boxes, they would rattle and you would wonder what was inside. We made our own Christmas ornaments and hung them on the tree with little metal hooks. On Christmas Eve, I would peer out my window and stare at the sky, searching for signs of reindeer, fighting to stay awake because I just had to see for myself. And then, on Christmas morning, my parents would tell us to wait while they went downstairs and plugged in the Christmas lights. My older brother and I would nearly kill each other running down, and oh, the wonder of it. Rushing in to see what Santa had brought. (How did he get that puppet theatre in his sleigh? How big are those elves, anyway? Wow.) Pulling candy and trinkets out of a stocking. It was a marvel.
I was in sixth grade when my brother set me straight. “You’re such a moron. Don’t you know there is no Santa? It’s Mom and Dad. They buy the presents and put them out at night.”
“I know where they hide them. When Mom goes grocery shopping, I’ll show you.”
Once my mom backed out of the driveway, he led me to the closet in my parents’ bathroom, grabbed a foot stool and reached up to the top shelf, pushing aside purses and crock pot boxes and other uninteresting adult paraphernalia to reveal the autoharp I’d asked Santa to bring me, plus a few other things from my list.
He smirked in triumph. “I told you.”
I felt a little sick. And on Christmas morning, when I saw those things under the tree, I didn’t have quite the same sense of joy. When my parents said, “Look what Santa brought,” I didn’t feel the same about them, either.
It’s never really the same after you find out the truth, is it? I can’t remember whether Christmas got less exciting after that because I stopped believing or if it was simply replaced by the other magical obsessions of adolescence—boys, cars, rock n roll, rebellion, freedom. By the time I was fourteen, my parents were divorced, my brother was leaving home, and I had discovered complicated family truths and thorny myths that made Santa seem like nothing. I grew up. I went away. My brother went away. My father died right before Christmas. Our family drifted apart. We no longer saw each other at Christmas or any other holiday, and I came to resent the Christmas season, to see it as a colossal pain in the neck and a reminder of loss.
And then came the boy. All those stirrings, those longings for closeness and traditions and that fragile belief in the magical that comes with a time limit, well, selfishly, I wanted it. Born a month before Christmas, he felt like a miracle—a gift I loved so much it was as if I had grown a second heart that beat only for him—and I believed in magic again. So I whispered the words in his ear, told him the tales, like a witch in a fairy tale, forgetting that the witch usually ends up ensnared in a cursed web of her own making.
Last night, once the truth was known, the questions came one after the other: “Do you fill the stockings? Do you eat the cookies and the carrots for the reindeer? Are you the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, too?”
Yes. Yes. Oh God, I’m sorry. Yes.
After he’d cried, and I’d used every bit of strength not to, and we’d talked, I told him the truest thing that I could, that I had debated whether or not I should have ever pretended there was a Santa Claus, that I wish I had been strong enough not to do it, but that, in the end, I couldn’t seem to let go of the tradition, but that maybe that had been cruel and I was sorry for it.
“No,” he said. “I liked it. Can we still do it?”
“If you’d like.”
A pause then. He squinted at me. It was a powerful, truth-ferreting-out squint.
“Are there any other lies you’ve told me?”
I swallowed hard. “None that I can think of just now.”
“I don’t like it when you lie to me. It makes me not trust you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be honest. And if it’s something I’m not ready to tell you yet, I’ll just say that.”
He nodded, thinking it over. “Okay.” Pause. “Well, I’ve told you some lies, too. Little ones.” He gave me an apologetic half-smile. “I mean, we’re just people. People do that.”
Yeah. Yeah, they do. Sometimes they do it to hurt. Sometimes to protect. And sometimes they do it because they want to stretch out the innocent enchantment of childhood, to pretend for a while that benevolent men in red suits leave presents as a token of goodwill, that fairies exist, that curses can be lifted and demons overcome, families cemented, hearts mended, that what you’ve lost can be brought back to you and reborn as new hope, new magic you pray will stick this time, even though you know it may not, and so you hold your child and your breath, make a wish and look to the sky for proof.