“Mommy, tell me the truth. Is Santa real?”
Theo asks me this question out of the blue one night after school. His brow is furrowed. He is giving me his Serious Face.
“Tell me the truth!” he repeats.
“Why do you ask?” I say, stalling.
He tells me that there was a little boy, in a show he watched recently, who didn’t believe in Santa.
I make a decision.
“Yes,” I say. “Of course he’s real. That was just a show.”
“Can he fly?”
“He flies in his sleigh… with his, um, magic reindeer,” I reply.
“But magic isn’t real! When people take their thumb off, they just do this,” he says, showing me the old take-off-the-tip-of-my-thumb-trick. He’s been into magic lately, and he’s been practicing a few tricks. I’ve explained to him that magic is all about illusion, a trick to make people believe they’re seeing something that’s not real.
“Well, regular people can’t do real magic,” I say, “but Santa can.”
The lies come out so smoothly. I feel like the Grinch telling Cindy Lou Who that he’s simply taking her Christmas tree back to his workshop to fix a broken light.
I feel terrible lying to him, and I wonder for the millionth time why we actively deceive our children with a story about a magical fat man delivering presents in a flying sleigh, when Christmas would probably be just as magical without that hooey. Everything is magical to children. Unlike adults, they don’t need manufactured fantasies to make life more exciting.
Then I realize: I lie to my children ALL THE TIME. Why should this particular fib make me so uncomfortable?
Here’s just a tiny sample of the lies I’ve told my kids:
“Sorry, that was the last cookie.”
“Paw Patrol isn’t available right now. Must be technical difficulties.”
“That’s a beautiful drawing.”
At 5, Theo has questions—lots of them—about things like God and the human body and death and the likelihood of a shark attack. But whenever he seems to be on the brink of probing deeper—How does a baby get into a mommy’s tummy? Does that mean that I am going to die someday, too?—he edges away. Maybe he senses that he’s approaching territory he’s not ready for; more likely, he’s simply lost interest in my rambling and has moved on to other concerns.
I get it. When I was a kid, I’d ask my dad something like, “Why is the moon following us?” and he’d launch into a sophisticated scientific explanation for why this appeared to be so. By the time he was done, I’d have no more questions to ask, because I had no idea what the heck he was talking about.
My dad strived for honesty, and he demanded it from us. Lying was by far the worst offense we could commit. And, when we asked him a question, we had better be prepared for the truth, because that’s what we were going to get. After I saw the movie Gremlins, for instance, I asked him if gremlins were real. He told me that he was 99 percent sure that they were not. I did not find this number comforting. I did not want to ponder ambiguity; I just wanted assurance that if I got up in the middle of the night to pee, I was not going to get mauled by Stripe.
It was my dad who finally broke the news to me about Santa. I had somehow managed to make it to age 8 with my belief intact, though it was getting harder to ignore the crazy schoolyard rumor that the presents under our trees were put there by our parents and not an elderly man from the North Pole. We were sitting in the car in our driveway, having just returned from somewhere, and I said, “Tell me the truth. Does Santa exist?”
I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, “No.”
I was, as they say, shocked but not surprised. Still, the whole thing didn’t click for me right away.
“That’s just great,” I said. “Next you’re going to tell me there’s no Easter Bun—”
Then it clicked.
My dad hugged me, but he spared me the line about how Santa exists in all of us when we give to others, which I appreciated. I probably sulked for a while, reassessing everything I’d previously thought to be true. But I don’t recall the remaining Christmases of my childhood being less wonderful after I learned The Truth. Maybe I even enjoyed my newly acquired adult knowledge. I had two little brothers who still believed, and I looked upon them with a combination of tolerance and world-weariness: “Let the dear things have their fun while they’re young.”
I think Theo is a more perceptive kid than I was at his age. Sometimes I suspect he’s even humoring me a bit. (“Let the dear thing have her fun.”) One morning, I freaked out when I realized that I’d forgotten to move the Elf on the Shelf the night before (because that is what my life has become), but was relieved to find it in a new spot when I came downstairs. I thanked my husband for taking care of it, but he said he hadn’t touched it. I eyed the creepy little elf with fresh dread, until it dawned on me that Theo must have moved it himself. He gave no sign of having done so, however; he acted as surprised as we were to see it on its new perch on the bookshelf.
So when he asked me, the other night, if I’m the one who moves the elf, I said, “No. Are you?” He looked at me evenly and said, “No.”
So what is my problem with Santa? It could be related to my discomfort with privilege and the fear that my children, who already have way more than they need, will be ruined by Christmas-related excess. It could be that I’m obsessing about this in order to avoid thinking about all the garbagey things that are happening in the world right now. It could be that I just hate lying. But I think that the most likely reason of all is that soon, I will have to stop lying. (About Santa, at least; I’ll keep the cookie one going as long as possible.) Because he’s growing up. And it’s just happening way too fast.
Last night, Theo was being extra nice to Nicholas. It happens sometimes.
“Theo, that is the Christmas spirit right there!” I said. “And you’re setting a good example for your brother by being so kind.”
Theo liked this interpretation. He explained to me that he wants to set a good example in order to keep Nicholas (who isn’t always nice) off of Santa’s naughty list. He wanted to be sure that Nicholas gets all of his Christmas presents. Pretty generous thought, considering that this is the same Nicholas who unceremoniously trashed Theo’s painstakingly built train setup the other day.
So we’ll keep Santa around for another year, at least. And when it’s time to bid him farewell, I’m pretty sure Theo is going to be just fine. I’m 99 percent sure that I will be, too.