“Once she learns the truth about Santa, she’s gonna be pissed.”
This was my prediction for Sis, when she was three.
In first grade, someone’s child decided to educate his classmates about the jolly bearded guy. Luckily, Sis’s good friend was Jewish and well-versed in keeping Santa on the down-low. Like Santa’s little superhero, she saved the day by changing the conversation and later told her family about it over dinner. Her mom passed the story to me in a late-night phone call on the mom-line. She laughed and told me her daughter had ended with “…at least he wasn’t talking bad about the Tooth Fairy. Everyone knows she’s real!” Clearly, some things are sacred and no religious boundaries. Besides, no one can talk smack about that coin-dropping fairy.
Spared the playground reveal, Sis stayed iffy about that fat-guy-down-the-chimney thing. Our family tradition is taking Santa photos at a photography studio—mall crowds suck the sparkly evergreen joy right out of my kids. In the spirit of saving Christmas, I arranged for Santa to greet the girls by name: Sis and little sister, Felicia. I can still see them in their homemade princess dresses (back when I used that dusty sewing machine)—hair freshly, properly, and Christmas-ly bowed—tentatively peeking around the corner. Leaning forward in his chair, Santa’s booming voice called them each by name.
Sis stood, doe-eyed, as her heart visibly leapt with relief. She believed in the old man’s magic once again. She lightly walked forward; I could’ve knocked her over with a feather. However, little sister, three-going-on-13 Felicia, had a mind working overtime. After photos, lists, candy canes, promises of cookies and milk, and goodbyes, F. stepped out of her Christmas dress into play clothes in the dressing room. “Wasn’t that cool?” I said. “Santa remembered you!”
“How do you know that?” she asked.
“He called you by name!”
“You could’ve told him our names before we walked in,” she reasoned.
“I was with you the whole time!”
“You could’ve called him before we left home.” This child would be the death of me. I couldn’t catch a break. I quickly and rudely interrupted her smart chatter with promises of the latest Happy Meal toy she’d get on the way home. (I have little pride in bribing precocious toddlers.) Second-borns: harder to fool, yet more easygoing. And this one? An easily redirected spinning top—a gift to counteract her brilliance. She quickly forgot her spot-on accusation and moved to talks of Happy Meal toys and The Lion King.
At age eight or nine, Sis began the truth-about-Santa interrogation. Dad was working—of course! Because things like this never happen when he’s home.
“Mama, do you believe in Santa?” This wasn’t going to be good or easy. Pretty sure I heard the DUN-DUN of the Law and Order gavel.
“I believe in the Christmas spirit. We read about St. Nicholas, remember? He was real.” I was scrambling. This was gonna end with her calling me a liar, I knew it.
“Yes. But, is Santa real?”
“You saw him, got your photo with him, and gave him your list, didn’t you?” Our personally developed family theory included one Santa Claus who hired a bunch of Clauses to meet children, collect lists, and report back to him. Sneaky little Christmas spies, each and every one. We chalked the whole “he sees you when you’re sleeping” thing to overgrown mythology—because that adage is just creepy if you ask me.
“But is he real, Mom?”
“What do you think?” A lawyer once taught me the value of answering a question with a question. A frustrating (and wise) therapist taught me the value of answering a question with that specific question: “What do you think?” It buys time and throws off inquisitive little girls for a brief moment.
I asked the same question again with different words: “What do you believe?”
“I think it might be you and Dad.”
She’s going with this one, I thought. OK, I can debunk this. “You think Dad and I buy presents for all the children in the world and deliver them from a sleigh? With reindeer? Do you know your father? He refuses to read a map and always gets lost. Remember the 45-minute hike that took four hours? Even if we could get all those gifts, delivering them would take decades.” Score! I answered one question with three.
“No, I think you get our presents, and other moms and dads get their kids’ presents,” she said.
Sigh. She’s ahead of the game. I knew it would happen. I took a deep breath and jumped in. “Do you really want to talk about this, now?” I needed to make sure she wanted to do this, because I believed she already knew the answer. This would give her a chance to reconsider.
I promised my children to honestly answer any question they asked, so that’s what I did. I told the truth. I reminded her of St. Nicholas, the gifts, the love that is Christmas. None of it mattered. Something in her broke. She sobbed. Like, stab-me-in-the-gut, stick-a-stiletto-in-my-heart sobbed. Snotty, my-world-won’t-ever-be-the-same sobbed. Sobbing that breaks a mama’s heart.
Then, she said it. The words I’d dreaded from the beginning. Those two words I knew would come ever since we introduced her to the rosy-cheeked, pipe-smoking ruler of elves:
The stiletto stabbed a little deeper.
She didn’t say, “I can’t believe you and Dad lied.” She didn’t say, “I can’t believe my parents lied.” No, she spoke deliberately and clearly.
“Mom, you lied.”
“I’m sorry.” I opened my arms. Weak, I know, but they were all I could offer. Thankfully, fell into me.
After we both cried, the wheels started turning.
“Wait a minute. Grandma, Grandpa, everyone is in on this? Julie? Aunt Jean? Uncle Ray? Granny? They all know about this?”
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I felt a small relief. Taking the spotlight off of me and including others in the conspiracy didn’t make me look so deceptively evil after all. Maybe it helped me look a little better, like less of a liar in her eyes. At the very least, it pointed out that I was not the only liar in her circle of adults. I embarrassingly and happily (and maybe a little too quickly) shared the guilt.
“Yes, they all know the truth.” I may or may have listed off a few adults close to her that she missed in the initial accusation of conspiracy.
This meant they also knew she’d been duped. Fooled not once, but many times—years, even. She’d fallen for Santa while everyone else knew the truth. The conspiracy of conspiracies—the ultimate childhood con—aimed directly against her.
“Yes, babe, the weather guy knows he’s not real. The Air Force does, too.”
Again, sobbing broken-hearted tears. Betrayed by the media as well—say it ain’t so. (Buckle up, kid! You have no idea.)
Genuinely embarrassed and hurt, she was the brunt of an elaborate childhood joke. Maybe so. But, for the right reasons. At least we thought they were for the right reasons.
I talked about our conscious choice to begin and keep the “magic” going. We talked about Christmas mornings past: the wonder and good feelings of receiving and giving. We talked about our initial consideration to forgo “Santa magic” and why, ultimately, we played along. It wasn’t to make her feel awful or tricked. On the contrary, it was to create a magical belief, albeit short-lived. That’s hard to explain to a tearful, crumbling child.
We talked about future Christmases. Maybe Sis could help fill stockings and be magic for her little sister.
Sobs became sniffles. She pulled herself together, unraveled from my lap. In the kitchen, I did the dishes and dried my tear-stained shoulder, while she retreated to play with her dollhouse, the item in which she found solace when she was pensive or needed to regroup, escape, and find grounding.
As I scrubbed greasy pans, she came and asked one final question:
“Mama, what about the Easter Bunny?”
“Dude, think about it: a rabbit painting eggs? Delivering chocolate bunnies? In a basket?” I could no longer be serious. Selfishly, I needed levity. I put my hands in front of my chest like the silly proverbial symbol of spring and all things new. As I bunny-hopped across the kitchen, tears morphed into giggles.
At 12, Sis became a big sister again. She and Felicia loved playing Santa to The Batman, until he, too, outgrew the pretending of the holiday. His reveal, on a much smaller level, was difficult and similar to Sis’s revelation. Somewhere in there, Felicia figured out the truth. Those middle kids are pretty savvy because she never let on she knew.
This year, I’ll display almost 20 family portraits with Santa. For that many years, I’ve scheduled those photographic visits with Santa. This year was no exception. I told them the date and time, and everyone made it happen (it required two vehicles and one stopping in on her return to college). They made me a happy mama. There was only one time we couldn’t get everyone home for a photo, so we made a Flat Stanley—I mean, a “Flat Sis.” She was there in spirit. I still don’t know why she wouldn’t let me call the cranky nursing school professor and explain why Sis should take the test early and come home. I know I could’ve made her understand, on a mom-to-mom level.
For at least 15 of those years, we had the same Santa, too. We watched him grow older, more jolly. He and Mrs. Claus watched our family grow in both size and height! I remember when we walked in with The Batman, a babe in arms. Mrs. Claus greeted us with open arms and happy dancing tears as she held her hands out for him. “You had a baby!”
One year, we learned Santa, Charles J. Beall, was no longer jingling Christmas bells on this earth. A new Santa arrived. Without much fanfare or formal introductions, he quietly and smoothly stepped into our family picture and remains to this day—albeit with duck lips and selfies in 2015. Like our original Santa, every year we enjoy his jolliness and catch up on all the happenings. This Santa even home-schooled his children, as we have, so there’s always a sharing of stories. In the crazy rush that is Christmas, a couple of hours taken from our evening keep us grounded with each other in this family tradition year after year.
And OK, maybe mama guilt with some “if you don’t believe, you don’t receive” encourages cooperation, too!