I had no idea that my daughter was watching me, that she’d followed me into the attic, that she was standing right there.
I’d gone up last fall to wrap a gift for a birthday party she’d been invited to. Without thinking, I dragged out the tall plastic container where I store rolls of wrapping paper, lifted off the top, casually thumbed through the various options the way any mother would—any mother who assumed she was alone, and safe, and in no danger at all of crushing the one great mystery of her daughter’s seven-and-a-half-year life.
“Mommy!” came a voice from behind me. It was firm. And desperate.
“Aaaahhh!” I screamed, also firm and desperate, and a little bit scared-out-of-my-cords. I immediately recognized the voice as Blair’s. My body instinctively whipped around to face her as I held the top of the container in front of my chest like a shield.
“Mommy!” she said again, pointing at the plastic bin. “How did Santa’s paper get in there?”
I looked inside, but I didn’t need to. I knew exactly the roll of wrapping paper she was referring to—white background, red swirlies, little cartoon Santas dotted all over. It was unmistakable—the paper my husband and I had used to wrap the presents from Santa that appeared under the tree on Christmas morning. It was the special-est of special paper. Exclusive. Straight from the North Pole. Able to tolerate high winds. Proof that you, dear child, had truly been nice. To Blair, this was what magic was all about. This was Santa’s paper. It proved he was real.
“Mommy?” Blair said again. This time it was a question. She didn’t know what the question was—I doubt she’d ever even considered it before—but I understood exactly what that lilt in her tone was on the verge of asking. And I couldn’t let it happen. Not yet.
At such a crucial parenting crossroad, there were many strategies I could have used to smooth this bump in the new-fallen snow. I could’ve tried the old Answer the Question With a Question: “What do you think it’s doing here?” I could’ve even pulled out a Lie Through Your Teeth, since that’s my general mode d’emploi for all things Clausal: “Didn’t I tell you? Santa dropped that off last week. He was running out of space in the workshop and asked if we could keep it for him until Christmas Eve.”
Instead, I resorted to the panicked-parent default: Yell Very Loudly.
“Blair!” I yelled very loudly. “Get out of here right now!”
It worked. Being banished so hostilely from the attic made Blair completely forget about the Santa paper. Ah. The comfort and joy of lying to my children about a big fat stranger sneaking into our house in the black of night to eat some of our food and leave presents wrapped in special paper under a dead Fraser fir would go on for another year.
“I’m not so sure about that,” said a second-grade mom when I gave her the rundown on Papergate. “A couple boys in the class just told Jeannie there is no Santa.”
“Our class?” I asked.
I could feel the blood drain from my face, which would have been an appropriate reaction if, say, she’d told me a couple of boys in second grade had taught her daughter to twerk. This was just Santa. And this was how it happened. Kids find out from other kids. It's how the Christmas cookie crumbles.
Except for one small problem.
I’d decided long ago that whenever possible, I wanted my kids to learn about the big stuff from me. I didn’t want Blair to be on the bus to the Please Touch Museum when she found out where babies come from, or to learn what “flipping the bird” means while waiting in line for the Nacho Fun Lunch at school. Following that pact with myself, I had no choice: I needed to tell her the truth about Santa. Now.
Only I didn’t want to. In fact, I was pretty sure I’d be more comfortable informing her that a little down the road, she’d begin to bleed from her body for one week every month for the next 40 years. Until this moment, I hadn’t realized how invested I was in preserving the Santa Lie. And I certainly didn’t anticipate that as I faced this second-grade mom, these words would come out of my mouth:
“I … want … names.”
I knew what the fallout on the home front would be when the truth about Santa came out. I’d heard plenty of sob stories from parents who’d slipped down this slope before me—tales of “the end of the magic” and “growing up too soon” and “What in the flipped bird do we do now that there’s no Naughty List to keep them from punching each other?”
There was my high-school pal Beth, whose third-grader got a two-fer in one day, when a classmate told her the truth about both Santa and sex, the latter in painstaking, biologically accurate detail.
A neighbor’s daughter had a substitute teacher in fifth grade who was handing out a writing assignment, which she explained like this: “Just create a fictitious character. You know. Like Santa.” (“There were some dreams crushed that day,” said the mom.)
And it’s been almost 10 years, but my college friend Pam can still barely speak about the fateful moment when her kindergartner walked in the door with the news. She felt like a fraud. (It didn’t exactly help that her five-year-old was shouting, “What else have you lied about? What about the Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy?”) Even though the jig was clearly up, Pam still wanted to get to the bottom of it. “Who told you?” she asked her son. It turned out her son’s classroom Scrooge had six older siblings more than happy to trample the myth.
Pam didn’t care. “I was so angry,” she says.
Now I was angry, fuming about those two seven-year-old boys whose names I now had, thankyouverymuch, and whom I envisioned strutting around the playground at recess the next day, puffed-out and cocky, whispering to the rest of the student body—maybe even to my kindergartner, Blair’s little sister!—about Santa’s throne of lies.
“I must put a stop to this! I’m so going to call their moms!” I announced to my husband, all puffed-out and cocky myself, the way people are while sitting on their couches, spouting to their spouses all the brave and noble things they’re going to do to right some wrong even though they know they don’t actually have the snowballs to pick up the phone. Plus, what would I say?
“Hi, Sammy’s mom? This is Blair’s mom. I thought you should know that Sammy is telling all the kids in second grade that Santa isn’t real, and I think you need to have a talk with him to make sure he understands that he has to stop telling the truth—” Click.
My friend Sandy actually had gotten schooled like that just a few weeks earlier, except it was at a parent/teacher conference ... by the teacher. Apparently, Sandy’s kindergartner, Amelia, took the position of The Denier during a Santa debate with her friends at coloring time. A few days later at the conference, the teacher made an odd statement: “So, you’re nonbelievers.”
“Nonbelievers in what?” Sandy asked.
“Nonbelievers in Santa,” the teacher said.
Sandy and her husband burst out laughing. “Well, do you believe in Santa?” Sandy responded, thinking it was all a joke. But the teacher wasn’t kidding. In fact, she explained that Amelia’s bean-spilling on Santa had caused “a disruption in the classroom.”
“Instead of getting into some big philosophical fight about the appropriateness of teaching a pagan myth in a public school, I assured her I’d speak to my daughter about respecting other people’s beliefs,” Sandy explained. “I came home and promptly told my kid she got me in trouble.”
My first reaction upon hearing this story was to thank Baby Jesus that Sandy's daughter and mine go to different schools. But after that, I just felt bummed. For all of them—for those shocked little kids in the kindergarten class who didn’t even know yet about coloring inside the lines, for that practical, deductive, five-going-on-25 Amelia. Mostly, I felt bad for my friend Sandy. She’s always been a no-B.S. kind of gal. I was sure she felt proud of her daughter for being so savvy. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking: Don’t give it up so fast! But what, exactly, did I think she was giving up, besides the years of psychotherapy the Santa Lie might potentially inflict on her kid?
“I don’t know of any cases of people going to mental institutions because their parents lied to them about Santa,” Temple child psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek assures me. Because I call her. Just to make sure. “It isn’t about ‘what’s real’ and ‘what’s a lie.’ Santa gives us a sense of the possible.”
That’s why we do this. Kids need to believe things are possible. Santa, aside from being the greatest universal deception of all time, teaches the youth of the world to at least consider the possibility: Maybe he is real. Maybe there is magic in their lives.
I needed to get my script ready for what I planned to say when, some night over chicken strips, Blair popped The Question. I asked friends what rationale they’d used when the jingle bell tolled for them. I ended up debating between two options:
“If you believe there is, there is.”
“If you don’t believe, you get undies.”
Throughout this whole nightmare before Christmas, I tried and tried to remember, but I couldn’t recall how I found out the truth about Santa Claus. Or when it happened. I did remember that the discovery didn’t force me to check myself into any kind of clinic. And I also remembered that for years and years afterward, I pretended I didn’t know the truth. I’d wake up on Christmas morning and my mother would walk into the family room and flick on the tree lights, then yell to my dad and me—it was just the three of us—“Santa came!”
I knew unequivocally why I was doing it—to keep the fantasy going, not for me, but for them. On this one morning, on this one day, I wasn’t a moody preteen, and they weren’t trying to figure out what to do about that weird clicking sound in the Ford. It was just us. And Santa.
I also remember being aware that my parents knew I was faking it. For 30-odd years, I figured they played along to try and keep some of that mystery alive for me, and there was probably a little of that going on. But now that I’m the on the other side of the stocking, I’m pretty sure the reason I want to shove it right in the mouths of those two tattletale-ing second graders is because of me. I’m the one who really needs this.
The moment I stopped believing in the fat man, whenever that was, the world started seeping in. Slowly at first—broken hearts and failed tests and chubby thighs. But it just kept coming, filling in the space where all that believing used to be. All of a sudden, I was 42 and worrying about rising gas prices and genetically modified dairy products, and post after post on Facebook detailing fund-raisers for sick people who can’t afford to pay their medical bills. I couldn’t get away from the news, from the shutdowns and suicide bombers, from the missing kids, from too many obituaries of too many friends.
Magic didn’t just happen anymore. I had to make room for it. I had to consciously let it in, give myself permission in the midst of all that junk to believe, just for a season, just for a day, the possibilities my kids simply take for granted—that kisses heal booboos, that shooting stars grant wishes, that a guy can fly all over the world just to bring you presents for no reason other than that you’ve been, you know, nice.
And then, just like that, it happened.
“You are not going to believe what Sammy told me today!” Blair announced at bedtime. Here we go, I thought.
“What did he say?”
“That there is no Santa!”
“Yes!” She paused for a second, and looked me right in the eye, firm and desperate. “You know, Mom, I feel sorry for him.”
I nodded. “Me too.”