I was five and it was summer and I had done something very bad. My oldest brother said it was so bad I was on Santa's Naughty List and there was not enough time to get off. I decided to ask the older neighbor girl to help me write an apology letter to Santa. I thought about what to say and remembered another "Sharon" moved into the house down the street and she was mean. I had to make sure he knew it was me apologizing and not her. And then I thought about how many more "Sharons" there might be in the world. And then I began to think.
There were numerous flaws in the Santa story. One was timing. Once he got into the house there was a lot to do. Besides finding the right presents, he ate cookies, drank milk, and wrote a thank-you note. There were more houses in my town than I could count. How could he get to every house in the world? If all the kids in the house were bad he could skip a few, but that was still a lot of houses. Did he make mistakes? The other Sharon rode a fancy bike that she said Santa gave her. How does a mean girl get a bike with chrome fenders, a light and a bell? And why did no kid ever see him leave the presents? Adults said Santa waited to come until you fell asleep. This was another timing problem. It takes a long time to fall asleep on Christmas Eve.
The more I thought, the more questions I had. How could a bag large enough for millions of presents fit in a sleigh? I saw the sleigh when he was at Sears. It wasn't very big. And I had a question about the reindeer. How can they fly that fast without exploding?
Still, it had to be true. My parents, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and Sunday School teacher would not lie. But something felt wrong and it made my stomach hurt.
I found my father in the basement at his workbench . “Is Santa Claus real?” He continued on his project without looking at me. “What do you think?” This was one infuriating thing about my father. He never answered a question without asking one. I presented my reasons why it seemed impossible. When I finished he turned to face me. My father was really smart. I waited for him to explain away all my doubts.
"You're right, Punky. There is no Santa Claus." He shook his head and grinned. "Well, you're no dummy." He went back to his work and I ran off to my room. It was daytime and I no longer took naps. But I climbed into bed, went under the covers and sobbed longer than I remember sobbing over anything.
Before I went down to supper that evening, I stood in front of my mirror and made a "hope to die, look the devil in the eye" vow to never lie to my children about Santa Claus.
Twenty years later, I told my parents I wasn't going to do the Santa Claus thing with my children. I told them my story of discovering the truth and how devasted I was. They laughed. "That's just a part of growing up."
I was annoyed they didn't understand my point, but I had to be careful.
I became a Bahá'i in college and my mother looked for signs it was a cult. After six years she stopped expecting I would shave my head and sell flowers in airports, but depriving my children of Santa Claus was reviving her suspicion. I denied this had anything to do with the Bahá'i Faith. "If I was still Christian, I would not lie about Santa Claus."
My father said "They're your kids, your decision." As I left the room mom whispered to dad, “She just took all the fun out of Christmas.”
I kept hearing my mother's words in my head whenever someone asked if I was done with my Christmas shopping, or what our plans were for the holiday. My kids were the only grandchildren my parents saw at Christmas and I ruined it for them. I would not go back on my promise, but there was a way we could do this.
I read T'was the Night Before Christmas to the kids and suggested we pretend this was true. This was normal for us. Most stories we read were turned into mini theatrical productions.
“But this time everyone will pretend with us.” My son looked skeptical. My daughter jumped up and down and twirled.
A few days later we went to the grocery store and the clerk leaned over the counter and smiled down at them. “What did you ask Santa to bring you?” They looked at each other and screamed. I explained they were very excited this year.
We went to the mall. "Santa" was there with a long line of children and parents, waiting. We giggled then assumed the roles of children and parent excited to see Santa Claus.
We would be traveling to my parent's house for Christmas. I called my mother to tell her my plan and she thought it was silly.
"I don't understand what you want me to do."
"Do what you did when we were kids. You pretended then. Just pretend now." She sighed. "By the way, I told them about Dad's Santa Claus bit in the attic and they want him to do it." She sighed again.
On Christmas Eve the kids talked all day about about Santa Claus. They wondered if he had left the North Pole yet and if Rudolf would come this year. They stood at the window and pointed to possible sightings. They drew pictures for him, checked out the chimney and asked to leave a window open as an alternate entry. Mom promised to leave the back door unlocked.
After they went to bed my father snuck up to the attic, stomped around and shouted out "Merry Christmas! Ho! Ho! Ho!" He called out the names of the Reindeer and left one out. My daughter yelled. "Rudolph! Santa you forgot Rudolph!"
They were told to stay in bed until they heard Grandma making breakfast. Their room was next to ours. It was barely dawn when I heard them whispering. My daughter swore she saw a red nose fly past the window. My son heard the back door squeak. I detected a whiff of coffee and felt small hands on my face. "Grandma's up". They waited for what I know seemed like hours for my husband and I to pee, brush teeth, and throw on our robes.
They gasped at the lit tree with presents beneath. They were thrilled Santa left crumbs and took their drawings. They fought over his thank you note.
After the quickest breakfast they ever ate, they opened presents and later searched for Santa clues. They found them. A stray white hair by the chimney. Odd prints in the snow. Possible fingerprints on the doorknob. That was disputed because Santa wears gloves. When they went to bed that night they asked if we could do it again next year.
My mother was amazed. "They had just as much fun as you kids did. Maybe more."
I nodded... but did not say “told you so”. I played the role of a respectful daughter.
When my son went to school I prepared him for the inevitable. "Your friends probably think Santa Claus is real, so please don't tell them he's
not." He wanted to know why.
"Because their parents want them to believe in him."
"Because when they were kids they thought he was real."
"Was he real then?"
"No, but their parents told them he was."
"They pretended. Like we do, but they didn't tell them it was pretend."
He considered this. "That is a lie."
"Adults think it's fun for children to believe in Santa. It was, but when I found out..."
"You believed in Santa Claus?" He laughed one of those full-out, hold your gut because it hurts laughs. I waited until he finished.
"Yes and it hurt when I found out, so I didn't do that to you."
He asked why people tell kids Santa is real when they know they find out the truth eventually.
I searched for an answer, but he found one first. "I know. It's what Jesus said. 'Do to others what they do to you' ".
We have the second generation of Santa non-believers. My kids havn’t done the “pretend you believe” game with them. My daughter said it was fun, but she remembers wishing she believed like her friends did.
“Do you wish I told you Santa Claus was real?”
“Not really. I would have been pissed.”
I took my grandson out for dinner last week to a Thai restaurant. It was decorated in Christmas lights and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” played in the background. I asked if the kids in his class still believed in Santa. He leaned forward and said in measured tones "Every single one." One of the boys told him he had to believe. It was a law.
I know my grandson. He could not let that pass, and he didn't. He told them Santa wasn’t real and parents buy the presents. The kids didn't believe him. “They’ll feel stupid when they find out.” We both laughed.
And then I asked him not to think they are "stupid", because it wasn't their fault.
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