My daughter Lily turns nine in June, and she’s been suspicious about Santa for more than six months. I was also in third grade when I was confronted with the truth about Saint Nicholas.
I remember being in the back of Mrs. Schultz’s class, hanging out with the other kids by the sink. It was a rainy day, so recess was inside, and Christmas vacation was coming up in just a few weeks. Clayton Cooke, the fastest runner in class, and Gary Nakamura, who was the fastest at the multiplication and division flash cards, were the coolest boys in class by default. They were leaning against the sink arms crossed, side by side, holding court.
Gary spoke first, while Clayton just nodded.
Santa isn’t real, you know. Santa is your parents.
They were smug in their knowledge, like boys would be a decade or less later when they were talking about sex. I think I remember Clayton with a cigarette half-hanging out of his mouth, but that’s a confabulation.
I was shocked and ashamed. Shocked at seeing the man behind the curtain, and ashamed that I hadn’t seen such an obvious truth earlier. Of course, I didn’t tell my parents that I knew, because I still wanted presents. It wasn’t until the following fall, when I was in 4th grade that my mother broached the subject. We had left Sears and we were crossing Valencia Street back to her car, and she dropped the bomb in the form of a question:
So when did you stop believing in Santa?
I shrugged and said I didn’t know. I didn’t like how she said it. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but it bugged me how there had been so much ritual and power and magic invested in this character over the years, and how we had all derived happiness from it, and then, at a certain age, it just got flipped off, like a switch.
The other feeling I couldn’t articulate was how learning all this was feeding my skepticism about everything I was being taught. If I was writing a script for a movie where the same scene played out, it might go something like this:
So when did you stop believing in Santa?
Pretty much around the same time I stopped believing that Jesus rose from the dead and that God and Jesus and a Ghost exists in some kind of three-for-one deal.
But I was not capable of saying that as an eight year old, and my mother would never have tolerated it.
When Lily entered our lives, Robin and I didn’t debate whether we’d fake her out with the cultural inventions about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Of course we would. That’s half the fun of being parents. We must foist our bizarre traditions and histories on our kids. Robin is Jewish, I am agnostic but consider myself “Jewish-by-proxy” due to marriage, and Lily is being raised Jewish, although we’re a bit behind on that process. We also have a Christmas tree and we go to church when we visit my mother. All I know is that if there is a higher power, we’ve got our bases covered.
We could have told her the truth from the beginning, and some parents do, but I never wanted to do that. You risk ostracizing your kid that way by making them “weird” to others before they can handle it. When I was growing up, the kid who knew Santa wasn’t real was also the kid who called his parents by their first names. Weird.
Of course, the truth will always win out, and this past year Robin and I had moments of anxiety. Not Lily. Us.
We knew she was hearing rumors on the school yard, just like I heard from Gary Nakamura and Clayton Cooke, or how I heard from my older cousins, Lene and Kathy, how babies were made. From the hints she was dropping I could tell Lily was going through the same deductive process I’d gone through.
She knows the story doesn’t make sense -- but if she stops believing in the story, she may not receive. And half the fun for all of us on Christmas morning is the fun of opening presents and the great feeling it gives you, even if Santa is fake. My sister-in-law has an elegant phrase she uses to this day, and her kids are all grown: As long as you believe, you shall receive.
I think Lily stopped believing this past Christmas, but didn’t want to tell us. I think she may have been guiding us towards the truth as well. She didn’t want to visit Santa at Macy’s, and when we watched “White Christmas” on Christmas Eve, she said she wanted that to be her new Christmas tradition. It felt more grown up.
We got through Christmas and dodged the truth, but this past week Lily lost a tooth. As with every past tooth, Lily leaves it on the dining room table. Robin has a small fabric bag, very light and see through, small enough for a fairy to lift and open. Lily always writes a note, and places the tooth in the fabric bag, on the dining room table. No “under the pillow” in our house -- Lily is too light a sleeper. That means Robin stays up late, and when she’s confident that Lily is asleep she writes an inspirational note to her in writing so small it could fit on a grain of rice, so small you need a magnifying glass to read it. She writes a long letter too.
This week Lily got her dollar from the tooth fairy. She showed me the tooth fairy wrote back to her, but I told her I couldn’t read it because the writing was so small, so she brought out a magnifying glass so we could examine the note more closely. Like Sherlock Holmes in braids, she made an observation:
Lily: Hey, this is written in the same ink as my letter to her.
Lily: And the writing sure looks like YOUR writing.
Robin: You have to brush your teeth, hurry up.
Lily: Are you the tooth fairy?
Robin: We’ll talk about it later.
The next day was fraught with anxiety. At Christmas, Robin had searched websites about how to handle the Santa quesiton, but we’d escaped -- probably because Lily wanted to spare us. By the false outrage in her voice, I could tell she was ready to confront us about the truth. Plus the false gods of spring -- the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy -- are easier to tear down then the grand St. Nicholas. Still, Robin spent all her spare time over the next 48 hours prepping for the moment when Lily would ask again. It happened at dinner this past weekend, and when Lily asked, Robin said she needed a script, and she read her this:
The truth is that Daddy and I believe in fantasy and magic. And your imagination is so beautiful and full of love and excitement. And you’ve reached an age when you really want to know. And the truth is that the tooth fairy has been a wonderful legend for a very long time.
And parents who really love their children and believe in magic are a tribe of magic keepers. And now that you know the truth, you have crossed over and you are now a magic keeper for younger children, and for your own children when you grow up. That’s why we’ve gotten you these gifts – three little fairies and a magical moonstone pendant to remind you of your new role.
And Santa? Saint Nicholas was a real person from long ago. He left presents for the children in his village, and he cared for the poor and unfortunate. The legend grew over time, and became the story we all know. Santa exists in the hearts and souls of all people who are kind and generous.
Santa’s spirit is a wonderful legend that brings all of us happiness. You can keep Santa alive in your heart for as long as you want. We can all be like Santa by doing nice things for people, and expecting nothing in return.
Robin was wiping her tears away as she read this. There would be no more Christmas arts and crafts, and no more baking cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve with her daughter. An era was ending. Lily took it in stride, with a few questions:
Lily: So when I went to visit Santa, I was just sitting on some random fat guys lap?
Lily: That’s so gross!
Robin: Sorry. We like those pictures, they make good Christmas cards.
Lily: And who ate the carrots that we left outside for the reindeer?
The father speaks up finally: I did.
Lily: That’s so gross! You ate ten carrots that we left in the driveway?
Me: I chewed them up and spit most of it out on the ground.
Lily: Did you wash them before you did that?
Me: Of course I washed them!
Lily: I hope so, they were in the driveway.
Robin: You can’t tell Sasha or Devin or Naomi or Zoey.
Lily: Of course not! Why would I do that?
And so the magic ends. Lily would rather live in Truth. However, she was relieved to know that she’ll still get gifts from Santa. If she pretends to believe, she will receive, like with so many other human belief systems.
She was upset, however, by two sets of magical creatures perhaps not being real. Fairies and mermaids.
I’ve enjoyed her belief in these two species. Neither care much about humans. Neither wants to really communicate with us. They’re not observing our behavior and rewarding or punishing us for what we do. If anything, they fear us for what we may do if we actually catch one. But she asked for the truth, so I had to had to tell her -- they don’t exist, and I’d be lying to you if I said they did.
She still feels a connection to the earth and nature when she is outside, and anthropomorphizing that force is a way to understand the indescribable, and ourselves. That’s the good part of myth and legend -- learning about the myth of Psyche can help us understand our psyches. And there may be intelligent “fairies” out there, on a distant planet, or in a form or a dimension that we simply can’t perceive, riding Higgs Boson particles through the mysterious Dark Matter of the universe. Lily now accepts and understands that the only way to find them is through scientific reasoning and logic, yet she still wishes there could be fairies hiding in the garden and mermaids swimming in the ocean.
When my friend Chris’s daughter was young and learned the truth about Santa, he saw her sitting on the sofa, staring wistfully out the window. When he asked her if something was wrong, she said, “I just wanted to believe a little bit longer.”