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It was a breezy and bright December day in Los Angeles. The four of us — me, my husband, my 10-year-old son and my 8-year-old daughter — were driving home pink-cheeked and happy. We’d just spent the afternoon playing in golden leaves that were falling like snow at a local lake.
“Is Santa real?” my son asked, out of the blue.
He might as well have asked how sperm gets to an egg or what being high feels like. The air left my lungs, and a dense rock dropped into my stomach. Thud. I looked at my husband in a panic, hoping I was hiding my fear. He was staring ahead at the road, and it was clear this was my question to field. My daughter was also eagerly awaiting an answer.
“He’s real if you believe in him,” I said. It was how my own parents had handled it — as long as we kept believing in Santa, he kept coming. He visited our house every Christmas until I moved out, and it was awesome. Satisfied with my reply, I nodded my head and started breathing again.
“Tell me the truth, are you guys Santa?” he pleaded. You have to know something about my son. Since he was born, he’s been a no-nonsense seeker of fact. As a toddler on Halloween, when people said, “Hey Buzz!” or “What’s up, Superman?”, he would correct them: “I’m not Buzz, I’m Nathan dressed up as Buzz.” I honestly don’t think he ever believed that a jolly man in a red fuzzy suit came down the chimney craving cookies and delivering presents. Especially not when the presents had store stickers accidentally left on them. Yes, in fact, there is a Target at the North Pole.
“I told you,” I began, getting flustered, wondering if I should tell him the truth. No, no, I couldn’t. Not with his little sister in the car. “If you don’t believe in him, he doesn’t come,” I said. I thought for sure that would get him to stop asking questions. I mean, who would risk not getting gifts from Santa!?
“Mommy really,” he persisted, his voice raised in desperation. “I just need to know the truth, just tell me.” The rock in my stomach rolled. This was one of those moments in childhood that every kid remembers as an adult — what jerk burst their Santa bubble. But could I straight out lie when asked so directly? I decided that this was some kind of trust test, and if I failed, he may never believe me again. I vowed to tell him later, privately. After all, he didn’t seem to need to believe. And it didn’t seem right he knew about the birds and bees by then, but not about Santa.
“I told you, and that’s it.” I closed the conversation for the moment.
When we got home, I discussed my plan with my husband, and he agreed that it was probably time to tell him. Being a very logical guy himself, he didn’t think it would do any harm. In fact, he pointed out, it might be nice to have it all out in the open. That way we wouldn’t have to sneak around anymore, and we could start getting credit for the best gifts.
I asked my son to talk in his room, and I closed the door behind us. We sat side by side on his twin captain’s bed covered lazily with a Millennium Falcon quilt. Glow-in-the-dark planets swayed above us, a photo of him as a newborn hung crookedly on the wall, and a Minecraft poster was pinned above a bookcase filled with Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.
“I want to talk to you about Santa,” I started. I hesitated. I wasn’t sure I would actually go through with it after all. He looked at me earnestly.
“He’s not real, right? It’s you guys,” he said. His eyes implored me to be honest. In my mind, I flashed forward five years and saw him not listening to my advice because I lied about Santa. So I came out with it.
“Well, he was once a real man. But now he’s more like a spirit. A giving spirit that’s within everyone who does generous things at Christmas time. But yes, daddy and I put the gifts under the tree.” And there it was, out in the open, floating in the air between us like a grim reaper waiting for magic to die. And it did. I saw the hopeful spark in his eyes go out. The reaper swooped up a piece of his childhood innocence and flew away with it forever.
“I knew it,” he said, disappointed. He looked away from me and down to the floor. “You guys eat the cookies, too.” I waited in silence as he put all the pieces together in his head. My eyes teared up; I was a thief. I tried to make it better by reiterating that the spirit of Santa is very real, that anyone can be Santa and make people’s dreams come true. But the grown-up truth sat in his eyes. With this news, all other mythical creatures evaporated — the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the naughty leprechaun. Well, he may have been relieved about the leprechaun since it freaked him out. I told him to please keep this knowledge between us and let his sister keep believing.
It’s a year later, nearing Christmas. I was hoping we’d have an alliance now that he’s in on the truth. But instead there’s just an awkward, silent knowledge that passes between us as we watch Christmas movies and talk about Santa, the cookies, the elves, and reindeer. I hope he will still feel the joy of Santa’s spirit and appreciate the true meaning of the season. It’s something I can still show him, at least.