It was bound to happen. It happens to everyone eventually. I mean, I didn’t really think it would last forever. But I wasn’t ready for it to happen just yet. What I’m talking about is a moment that many parents dread: when your child comes to the realization that Santa isn’t real!
I admit that I’m not the most festive person. The holidays always kind of rub me the wrong way. Mostly, I’m talking about the gluttonous shopping, the crummy songs played ad nauseum, and the select colors we’re all supposed to adopt for an entire month (I mean, really). But then there are other things: stupid traditions like putting a tree in your house (Germans, verdammt!), sending out cards that will immediately be trashed, and lighting up houses because the power company doesn’t already get enough of our money (cha-ching!!). Basically, the whole month of December is nothing but madness.
With that said, despite my embittered and humbugging heart, there is one thing I really enjoy about the season – the look of wonder in my kids’ eyes as they hold tightly to a belief in Santa, magical elves and the Christmas spirit that I somehow lost along the way. Nothing lasts forever, though; I knew this moment was coming.
Just a few weeks ago, when my son started pondering the validity of the Christmas stories, I knew it was over. We had finally reached that developmental fork in the road and nothing – NOTHING – would ever be the same again. Because 2021 has been such an all-together lousy year for our world (and our family), I wasn’t prepared to lose something else. A couple of his teeth, sure. A creative spark - oh well. A passion for cooking - adios! But not Santa…I would have preferred for us to lose just about anything but that.
I toyed with the idea of stringing him along and evading his request for the truth just a little while longer. But he’s eight; and, you know, when the cat’s out of the bag…it’s out. So, when he asked me point-blank, “Mommy, is Santa Claus real,” I wanted to lie. The wheels turned in my head to concoct a good story. But I couldn’t do it – not only because I’ve lost most of my creative sensibilities as of late, but also because I made a rule with myself to always be honest with my kids when they come to me with questions. (I really don’t know what happens when we die. It’s a penis, not a “ding-dong.” No, polka is not music.)
When this happened with my eldest child, there was a sort of ceremonial aspect to this revelation. I wrote her a letter telling her how wonderful it was that she had reached this new stage in her life. I praised her for using critical thinking to unearth a deeper truth behind our family’s mythology. We celebrated the idea that she was now “in on the secret.” But, most importantly, we kept the experience light. There wasn’t any sadness involved. And because I hadn’t hinged on it being a loss, she came away from the era with equal measures of happiness for discovering the truth on her own and gratitude for realizing the depths of her parents’ love.
With my son, however, my natural urge in this time was to drift into melancholy. Maybe there’s something about boys – mothers want to always cocoon them in juvenescence so they’ll be safe and sweet forever. But I knew it wasn’t what he needed. Or deserved. This was the moment where I had to put my best Santa hat on and evoke the real spirit of Christmas with my actions instead of the props (and let’s be real: lies) on which I had so heavily relied.
We sat down and talked, just the two of us. He asked me all the questions. I delivered all the answers. It wasn’t sad (for him). It wasn’t hard (for me). At the end of it, we came to an understanding about the nuts and bolts of why the charade had been carried on so long. He laughed about the leaps of logic that were peddled over the years: the silly stories of a fat man in a red suit, the necessity of warp speed and limitless budgets. He took pause at his collected proof, which came from missing cookies (mom) and the act of receiving most things on his wish-list (dad). But we also chuckled over the red flags: explanations of the variations in mall Santas (some had real beards, but most did not!) and how “Santa” still founds the stockings we hung from the bookshelf after our fireplace had been removed.
I know the experts say it’s not wise to treat your children like friends, but once they “age out” of this whole Santa mythology, there really is a much deeper and more significant time as friends that we share over the holidays. Once they know Mom and Dad are behind all the gift-giving in their lives, it does seem to mean more to them. Their good behavior stops being for an imagined entity and starts being for the parents who spent years sneaking around to prop up what little sense of wonderment they could muster.
In the end, the true magic of the spirit exists in the love that is shared between us. Whether that love still entails Santa, Elf on the Shelf, or a whole bevvy of terrible traditions – or not - it’s okay because that love is everywhere…all year long. We aren’t missing out on anything by losing one beardy fat man or one more silly tradition. Not when that same love has been the magic behind all of it!
Thankfully (or not), we have one more kid for which we must keep up this charade. But in another five or so years, when she has figured out what her siblings now know to be true, we will walk down a similar path of questions and realizations. It may be harder, given that it will be our final hoorah (until we have grandkids). But it may be easier since we’ve had a couple of rounds of practice. All I know for certain is that everything is as hard or easy as you choose to make it. This year, I’m still going to bake cookies for “Santa,” knowing full well that they’re just for me…but I’m also signing the packages “From: Mom and Dad,” because after all that this year has entailed, we deserve a little appreciation…and a break from Santa. Next year he will be back, with full intensity, for our youngest; but this year we will enjoy a year without. And, honestly, that (and the togetherness) has been the best gift I could have hoped for.