We had turned the lights off so that it was dark except for the ambient light emanating from the roaring fireplace. The intention was to obscure my uncle’s face so that my little cousins would not recognize that they were in fact sitting on their father’s lap. In the darkness, the children closely examined his face, cast in shadow from the hearth behind them, a mild hesitation in their interaction with the so-called Santa.
This was Christmas Eve five years ago. When my Aunt and Uncle arrived that night with the kids, we hid all the presents in my basement on the sly in preparation for the great deception. At my house, we open presents on Christmas Eve. Because everyone gets together on Christmas Eve, it’s the perfect opportunity to exchange gifts. I suppose we could wait until morning but making children eye presents all night without the satisfaction of opening them is an act of cruelty.
Because our tradition flew in the face of the Christmas trope of waking up in the morning to presents stacked beneath the tree, it’s likely they decided to give the kids Santa for a night and create a loophole. Kids compare stories and when things don’t add up, they ask questions. As I remember it, the disparity never bothered me, but I was probably a bit more insulated, willing to accept my family’s version over my friends’. My cousins on the other hand seemed more keen on fitting into the mold.
However, when my uncle emerged from the basement donning the traditional garb of St. Nick and bearing a sack of presents, what struck me was the underlying skepticism of the children’s interaction with the faux Santa. They weren’t freaking out, but a bit confounded by his presence. As the boy, the younger of the two, closely examined the contours of his father’s darkened face, he came right out and said it. “You’re Dad aren’t you?”
“No! Of course not. Ho Ho Ho.” And so the song and dance continued, my uncle easing into the role of Santa, the children into the role of well behaved young tikes, the rest of us sitting back amused by the lengths parents will go to keep their children happy. I began to think about how I would handle it. I tried to remember how my parents operated in this situation.
I’m not sure my parents tried that hard. They perpetuated the Santa mythology, most likely because they had to, because it was tradition and because no one wants their kid to be the one to shatter the reality of other children. But they never had us write any wish lists or letters to Santa and my dad sure as hell didn’t dress up as him. Only once do I remember sitting on Santa’s lap. My town had a pretty flashy Santa who showed up in a helicopter, but that was a one and done deal, probably since we had to wait outside in the cold in order to get into a little booth to see him.
By not adhering to certain customs, my parents managed to avoid the traps of elaborate lies. They stuck to the vague basics. But now parents have Elf on the Shelf and websites that send e-letters and video messages from the big man himself, essentially legitimizing the lie. In a sense, this is narrowing the distance between reality and make-believe, and may only make it harder for kids to grow up and let go of the myth.
I’m not exactly positive how it was that I stopped believing in Santa, which is an indication of how inconsequential it was. Perhaps, it’s not even that traumatic for kids who have a stronger attachment to the idea. I think the fear lies more closely with the parents, who having lied for so many years, and are confronted with the task of unraveling everything they’ve done. They also have to look their children in the eye and admit to lying to their faces for years.
Should We Keep the Myth Alive?
Now, I know the parents reading this don’t want to hear the opinion of some childless cynic, but I honestly empathize. If my little cousins asked me right now if Santa was real, I can’t say I would have the courage to tell the truth. It might depend on their age or how they approach the query. A believer will seek validation of their belief and the skeptic will seek validation for their doubts. And honestly, the moment you sense any doubt, I say pounce on it because it’s your cue to rid yourself of this terrible burden.
I’m not sure if my little cousins still believe in Santa. But watching them that night, bearing witness to their delicate skepticism, I wondered if it was worth all the effort. Do they really care that much about Santa? Why can’t we just say, “There was this chill old dude with a beard who went around giving presents to the needy, so now we give each other presents every year. But you have to be good to get any”?