“Mom, I have a really important question to ask you.”
My son has a serious look on his face, so I stop what I’m doing. At ten, his questions are not always easy (why do certain cells divide faster than others? How do coral fish change their sex? Is there enough room on the planet for everyone to live?). So I put my coffee down and close my laptop.
“O.K.,” I say. “Shoot.”
“Before I ask, you have to promise me, pinky swear, that you’ll tell me the truth.”
I crook my little finger and hold it out to him, a little tentatively.
“Does Santa really exist?”
And there it is. The moment of truth. The question I’ve been waiting for, anticipating, dreading since leaving that first plate of cookies by the tree and later eating them, untidily, crumbs floating in milk as evidence. (Of course, Santa dunks.) Since mailing that first illegibly scrawled letter to the North Pole. (Of course it will get there.) Since that first trip to the mall to wait in line for a photo. (Of course that’s really Santa.)
This time I know I can’t dodge the answer with my evasive standby, “If you believe, then he exists.” This time, he’s figured it out, has probably suspected for a while.
I wonder if the fall of Santa is my fault. As the years have gone by, perhaps I’ve toppled him little by little, gotten somewhat slack, a bit sloppy, a tad lazy in the Father Christmas department. Maybe I didn’t vary Santa’s handwriting enough from my own on the gift tags. Maybe the glass of milk was left untouched on the counter because I just couldn’t stomach dairy at two in the morning. Maybe Santa’s presents were piled in right alongside the others in the closet. On the shelf that was once too high, when you were too young to turn the door handle.
Or maybe, I’ve stopped believing.
My son deserves an honest answer. So I say it. “No sweetheart. Santa is not real.” I let it sink in, expecting tears, or worse, outrage. But he is silent, reflective.
“So who put the candy canes and sparkles all over the tree?”
“And the presents? All the notes?”
“That was me too.”
“But what about those reindeer prints in the yard that time? That couldn’t have been . . .”
“Yep. Me. Powdered sugar. Remember all the ants?”
“And the cookies? You didn’t . . . That was . . .”
“Your father. Your father ate the cookies.”
My husband and I had the great Santa debate before our children were born. He was against perpetuating the “greatest lie a parent can tell their children.” I was all for fostering “the most magical time in a child’s life.” It was a matter of perspective. For my husband, Christmas smacked of divorce, a father an ocean away, hard times and unfulfilled wishes. Christmas stung.
For me, it sang. Christmas was a Norman Rockwell scene complete with yule tide guests, walnut-studded cheddar logs, sugar cookies and mugs of mulled spices. Carolers congregating in front of our house holding sheet music, the baritone warming the notes deep in his chest, the soprano rounding her mouth into a chilly, fluted O. And there was midnight mass (the warm torpor), tapered candles in green and red on a mantle lined with hand-written cards. A stained-glass window of a Christmas tree whose branches democratically mingled bangles and baubles in silver and gold, blown glass and delicately painted spheres with the less noble popsicle sticks, garlands of gluey, glittered construction paper, threaded popcorn and slivers of molding dried oranges.
I wondered how two people could experience Christmas so differently.
We eventually compromised. As the years went on and my father passed away, I understood my husband’s sense of loss. As the years went on and he saw the magic through our children’s eyes, he understood my joy. And Christmas became ours, a shared middle ground–a lot less extravagant than my memories, a lot less melancholy than his reality. We tamed the tinsel and decorated the banana tree in our yard. We made most of our gifts. We walked on the beach, a broad hearth for the sun. We celebrated life.
For all those years, I was the Santa mom. How easily I slipped into the persona of the secret giver, the teller of little untruths, the steadfast believer, the noiseless magician. Suddenly, I feel a sense of loss that my role has come to an end. Until I remember that his little sister doesn’t know, or hasn’t admitted it. We can pretend a little longer.
My son isn’t disappointed or sad or angry as I’d feared. He’s stronger than me. Instead, he’s curious, wondering how it all happened, calling up details and memories that I don’t even remember.
“What about that time when I lost my stuffed animal and he showed up all dirty under the tree with a note? How did you get him back?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I tell him. Some things are still a mystery.