It’s a question I dreaded almost as much as “Mom, where do babies come from?” It first came up last year, in the car, driving Matthew home from kindergarten.
“Mom,” he suddenly said from the back seat, “is there really a Santa Claus?”
I did my best teacher thing and stalled for time. “Why do you ask, Matthew?”
It turns out one of the girls in his class was saying that there was no Santa, and he was not sure whether she was right.
I hedged, saying, “You know, Santa really was a real person — he was born hundreds of years ago, and was very kind and generous to everyone.”
“But is he real?” Matthew asked.
“The spirit of Santa is real,” I said, launching into an off-the-cuff and no doubt bizarrely confusing explanation of how the season is all about giving and we are all being Santa on earth every time we are kind to one another, etc. In other words: I wussed out.
It’s a tough thing, this whole Santa legend. It was great when Matthew was a preschooler, and I could just say things like, “Santa will come tomorrow!” and “Let’s put out milk and cookies for Santa!” and there was one hundred percent buy-in and no direct questions.
But last year, the cracks started to show. There was the conversation above, followed by a few more almost identical ones, with identical verbal tap-dancing on my part. There was the look of skepticism on Matthew’s face when Santa just happened to know that we were going to be out-of-town on Christmas Day and just happened to bring a new train layout a week before Christmas — coincidentally, when my parents were spending the night at our house for an early holiday celebration. I realized that the more direct the question, the more uncomfortable I felt; I was essentially lying to my son if I said “Yes, there is a Santa,” so I engaged in conversational acrobatics that would put a politician to shame. But I didn’t at any time cop to the actual truth, and so we managed to get through last year.
And I really wanted him to keep on believing. I didn’t want him to have the experience I had, at about age five, when my belief was shattered by the babysitter of my best friend. We were at the park one afternoon, and as we all swung on the jungle gym this teenage girl volunteered the information that there was no Santa Claus, a declaration which surely violates the Hippocratic Oath of babysitters. “There’s no Santa, and there’s no Easter Bunny,” she told us with devastating confidence. Somewhat inexplicably, she added, “But there IS a Tooth Fairy.”
It was a disappointment, to be sure. And I wanted to spare Matthew that loss of his sweet holiday innocence.
But last week, when all four of us were in the car, Matthew asked the question again. This time, Scott answered. “The spirit of Santa is real,” he said cautiously, borrowing my totally inadequate script. We changed the subject before Matthew could pursue the topic further; little brother Luke was in the adjacent carseat, after all.
Santa’s living on borrowed time, I thought.
Sure enough, just a few evenings ago, I was making dinner when he called to me from the other room. “Mom,” he asked point-blank, “does Santa really come down the chimney and give us presents?”
And just like that, I knew the time was Now.
“Come on in here, Matthew,” I said. He came into the kitchen and I knelt down beside him.
“No, Honey,”I said. “Santa doesn’t actually bring presents.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly: copious tears, a crestfallen expression, a seven-year-old rendition of Munch’s The Scream. But I sure wasn’t expecting his actual reaction. His face lit up with a sudden smile. It was a smile of relief, almost one of triumph.
“I knew it!” he said. “It’s you and Daddy, isn’t it?”
We talked for a few minutes about why we tell the story of Santa Claus, even though he isn’t real. “For one thing, it’s a nice story that makes people happy,” I said. “And the second reason is because Christmas is about being kind and generous, and that’s what Santa is.”
“Also,” said my highly logical son, “because parents want their kids to be good.”
So Santa is over, where Matthew is concerned. He had about a six-and-a-half-year run; I guess I should be thankful for that. But what was most fascinating about that kitchen conversation is that Matthew wasn’t the only one who learned something new. I learned a lot more than he did, I think — namely, that there comes a time when trying to maintain the beautiful illusion for your kids is actually worse than entrusting them with the full truth. They may be ready for that truth much earlier than we think they are … and much earlier than we, in our parental nostalgia for their younger selves, want them to be.
The relief on Matthew’s face said so much. He wasn’t hungry to keep believing in the jolly old elf with the sack of toys. He was hungry to get the full truth, from Mom, and to know that his own gradual piecing together of the evidence was in fact correct.
Luckily, he hasn’t been telling his little brother about what he learned, nor has he been rolling his eyes whenever Santa is mentioned. I think maybe he’s going to do what I did throughout most of my childhood: enjoy the lovely tale for what it is, holding both the truth and the fantasy together in his brain.
He’s a little older and a little wiser … as am I.
What’s your Santa story? Do your kids still believe? When did you yourself find out the truth?