One Christmas morning more than 10 years ago, I woke to the sound of footsteps bounding down the stairs and an implosion of anxiety. I’d forgotten to fill my then-four-year-old’s stocking from Santa Claus. Heart pounding, I went into super mommy mode: grabbed the bag of stuffers, flew down the stairs with ninja stealth speed, motioned behind my son’s back to my mother to stall him with cute grandma chatter, thanked the universe he was not the kind of kid who raced right to the presents, dumped the goods in the stocking, and then wandered back into the kitchen with a guilt-induced nonchalance perfected during my teenage years.
“So, should we see what Santa brought?” I asked, only slightly out of breath.
“Yeah!” my son answered and off he went.
“I can’t wait until he stops believing,” I whispered to my mom. “I just can’t get the hang of this!”
My mother just shrugged, unsympathetic to the fact that it was her decision about Christmas when I was a kid that had led to this madness. At some point when I was very young, she got tired of missing the Christmas gift opening fun because she was in the kitchen cooking dinner. So one year she declared we’d open our gifts on Christmas Eve. My three older siblings were no doubt hip to the truth about Santa at that point, but I was young enough that to this day I don’t have memories of believing in Santa, although I surely must have. I mostly remember feeling lucky that we got to open our presents earlier than everyone else I knew. That I could count on my grandparents to get me something good—traditionally Santa’s territory. Add to this the fact that we didn’t fill stockings—either from each other or Santa—and you can perhaps begin to see how recreating the whole Santa myth thing for my son was a DIY project, made all the more difficult because I’m a terrible liar. Big lies, little lies, doesn’t matter. I have no poker face and when asked a direct question, like, say, “Is Santa Claus real?” I will crumble.
I averted the stocking crisis, but this was my next big dread. The Santa Claus question. I marveled at all the other families I knew who celebrated Christmas. How they had no trouble at all telling their kids Santa is real—through all the stages, from the tentative, “I’ve heard rumors from the other kids but I don’t believe them, so please confirm,” to the “I’m 13, so you can stop pretending now.”
I knew I had a few years before I really had to sweat it, but by the time Lucas was in fourth grade, the pressure mounted. In addition to my inability to tell a lie, my son is very logical and smart, and so he started wondering about the logistics earlier than other kids. He didn’t just ask straight out if Santa was real, which would be hard but also easily deflected with a quick “Yes!” and redirect. Rather, he asked a ton of ancillary questions in trying to make the logistics match the seemingly impossible feat of going around the world in 24 hours. Of course there are a host of newer animated Christmas shows that try to answer that very question—and they invariably involve very high tech equipment with Mission Impossible movie style antics. The ancillary questions could be evaded, but I didn’t realize they were actually zeroing on the “big” question and softening me up like a criminal in a bad 70s good cop, bad cop show. The fact that I could evade them or turn the question back on him, “So how do you think the reindeer can fly?” only encouraged me to let my guard down, relax, think I had another year to quiz other parents, read up on the internet, figure out how the hell to do this…and then it happened. The topic hadn’t been mentioned in weeks, and I was distracted with something else when he asked: “Mom, is Santo real?” Wide-eyed and paralyzed like a woodchuck just before it’s going to become road kill, I paused. Somehow I’d hoped when he finally asked, I’d be able to discern in his voice where along the continuum he was in the belief—the beginning of the end? Half and half? Not believing, but still wishing to? I strained in vain to hear the undertones and my mind raced over the previous conversations we’d had. I came to this horrible, terribly flawed decision: He’s smart, he’s logical, he will be hurt in the future when he knows I lied to him right now, and he seems ready to know the truth. Otherwise why would he ask? I told you I was no good at this.
“He’s not real, sweetie,” I said. His crushed whisper “He’s not?” and his sudden fierce tears slammed into me like an 18-wheeler. Holy crap, what had I done? I backpeddled like a person backing away their promised soul from Satan. I have no idea what I really said, but in my mind it was a lame version of I was just kidding, of course he’s real, mommy made a really, really, really bad joke. The tears stopped, but it was horrifying. That was the beginning of the end. I think his belief lasted one more year after that, and then it was done. He still likes Christmas, so there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. At least for him. I still twitch a little when I fill his stocking, And I try not to think about the lies I may have to tell any future grandkids. Better work on my poker face. .