It’s over, Santa








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?”

Whoah boy.

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?


6 Responses to It’s over, Santa

  1. Three of my four are in on the secret. It’s a little easier when you can salvage some of the fun by including the kids on helping preserve the legend for their younger siblings. We won’t be able to add that silver lining for our youngest.

    I do remember my oldest becoming skeptical because he noticed that some kids who really weren’t very nice were still getting plenty of presents from Santa. I’m not sure that trying to tie Santa’s gift-giving to behavior was such a good idea.

  2. Great point, Bill. When Santa rewards the naughty as well as the nice, it does somewhat undermine the whole effect. Kids are so smart, too … they notice these things.

    I remember being about three or four years old (before the babysitter ruined Santa for me) and getting a new doll for Christmas. Santa had filled out the gift tag, and he had writing that was exactly like my dad’s. I remember commenting on it to my mom. Even then, though, I didn’t figure it out! I guess I was a real innocent. 🙂

  3. Lauren Connelly

    I recall I started wondering (and asking) why Santa and Mom have identical handwriting. But I have two much younger siblings, so I got to participate in the legend for years after I figured out, but as an “insider,” which was great fun. We never felt lied to or betrayed by our parents’ fibbing–getting in on the joke was just one more exciting step towards growing up.

    I may be in trouble with my own son, though. My husband is Jewish, and though I put up Christmas decorations and a tree and have a real chimney, we have been united in asserting that Santa knows Daddy is Jewish, so he’ll leave the gifts at Grandma’s house. Solid enough. BUT William attends a Jewish preschool, so he’s surrounded by potential spillers-of-beans. Hopefully he gets a year or two of the magic, though.

    He’s already asking when Christmas is, and is rather put out that the coming of Christmas was not hastened by the snow we had today.

  4. I love hearing how interfaith households do the holidays! Very cool.

    My hope is that Matthew slides into the role you had with your own siblings: cool and privileged insider who enjoys keeping the magic alive for his little brother. So far, so good.

    Lucky you with the snow! (‘course it’s not as lucky when you need to get out and shovel it off the walkway, I’m sure). It’s been just plain cold out here lately, without the fun and beauty of snow.

  5. I saw this quote posted elsewhere and thought you’d enjoy it – instead of Santa as a myth to be exposed, Santa as a way of beginning to understand God and thus an image to be savored:

    What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

    As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

    And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . . What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
    Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

    Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. –G.K. Chesterton

  6. Therese, I love it! “The large the preposterous present of myself” — great phrase. Thank you.