The Truth About Santa

When I was nine years old, I asked my dad if he was Santa. I’d heard rumors at school that Santa wasn’t real and decided to put my doubts to rest by getting Dad to confirm what I’d always believed. We were sitting together on the couch in front of the Christmas tree, and I heard myself ask, “Dad, are you Santa?” There wasn’t even a pause, as if he’d been waiting to tell me the truth.

“Yeah,” he said quietly.

And that was it. If there was further conversation, I don’t remember it.

I was in complete and utter disbelief. I legitimately had no idea what to do with that information. A lot of kids aren’t fazed when they learn the truth about Santa. They feel something and move on. But being the oldest, a girl, a 9 on the Enneagram, and a Highly Sensitive Person,  I toiled with the information secretly and dramatically for the rest of my childhood.

I acutely felt the responsibility to keep pretending so I wouldn’t ruin the game for my younger siblings and cousins. The game wasn’t really the problem. I could pretend Santa was real. But there was another pretending I struggled to keep up with. And that was pretending to have the previous wonder and joy about Christmas that had so abruptly been dashed.

I remember holding the lump in my throat that Christmas Eve while my siblings and I pressed our ears against the chimney that ran through my upstairs bedroom. My brother thought he heard Santa and was going to sneak out and look over the balcony. I begged him not to. I didn’t want my parents to get caught and I didn’t want the secret ruined for him.

Even the presents the next morning didn’t cut it for me that year. I felt flat.

I’m realizing in this very moment, literally as I type, that those first reality-filled Christmas days may have been my first experiences with depression that I can remember.

Before I get too far here, I want to say that I have no opinion on whether parents should promote a belief in Santa, and I hold absolutely nothing against my parents for the magic they created for me as a kid. It was beautiful, and wonderful, and there is absolutely nothing that matches that feeling for those who do experience it.

But when I became a parent myself, I couldn’t do it.

I told my kids from early on that Santa was pretend, that St. Nicholas was real but lived long ago, and that we share surprise gifts to remember him and to have fun. It reads nicely, but I wrestled with this parenting move just as much as I wrestled with the Santa reality check when I was nine.

Our oldest child was the only 4-year-old at preschool who didn’t believe in Santa. “Even my teachers believe,” he told me one day on the drive home.

Painful regret. I was a grinch.

I lived several Decembers in a cloud of Scrooge-y, overanalytical self-doubt, knowing I’d done right by myself but wondering if I’d ruined a major piece of childhood for my kids. Because it wasn’t just Santa. You knock him out and you’re taking all the other fantastical, parent-dependent, gift-bearing characters with him.

Time passed, I got over it, and Christmas remained magical for our kids. I settled into a sort of peace about it.

But then another kid was born.

And here is why I’m telling this story in the first place.

We kept doing Christmas the same way we always had, but as frequently happens with subsequent children, I got a little lax on overtly teaching our youngest certain things. We didn’t teach him that Santa was real. But we also didn’t teach him that Santa was pretend. And as we moved into December of his 6th year, it became clear that he very much believed.

Again, my wrestling ensued as I considered whether to intervene and teach him the way I had the older two, or to stay out of it. A big part of me was delighted that my child could have this caliber of belief and imagination without any encouragement from me. But a more persistent part felt I had a responsibility to give him accurate information, just like I would if I discovered he had a misunderstanding about clouds or magnets or where his chicken comes from.

For a few days I struggled with Santa the same way I did on the couch as a kid, and the same way I did when my older kids were small. I felt tired of thinking about it. And I felt sheepish and self-centered caring so much about Santa, given many people’s harsh realities at Christmastime.

I sat by our newly decorated tree, staring into the lights and ruminating again over what to tell my little boy. Then I picked up my phone and was reminded of devastating things like war, genocide, destruction, and oppression, and my “problem” quickly fell into perspective.

I felt ashamed and started questioning my own motivations and ethics. Was I seriously paying so much of my time, attention, and energy to Santa when there were real, legitimate crises in the world?

But here’s the thing.

When it comes to belief and conviction, the struggle is always important.

We see this in yogic and religious texts everywhere we look: stories of people wrestling with what is right, what is true, what is good. People trying to do this human experience while struggling against their ideas about God, who God is, what God wants, and where their individual will and personal power lie on the landscape.

This thing between my kid and me is about more than Santa.

It’s about me being in relationship with my convictions and discerning how to live them out, and showing up as the most authentic version of myself in relationship to my son. And it’s about allowing and accepting who he is, what he believes, and how he responds to the things I share with him and the things he discovers on his own – about the world, about love, about identity, God, and Santa.

A person who struggles is a person who can look back and honestly say they did the best they could with the information they had at the time. They’re a person who can truly listen, change their mind, and apologize.

Someone who wrestles is a person who can adapt and evolve; a person whose faith and convictions change and grow, as opposed to stagnate and expire.

A person who enters an inner struggle is a person on a spiritual path, whatever words they call it by. And they’re stepping carefully and intentionally on that path, and it’s hard.

They may traverse crags and grooves and jutting roots different ways on different days. They may veer off, realize their error and return. Or they may keep following their own way into the brush, the edges of their path becoming blurrier with distance and time until they look up and find themselves lost, even when their own careful compass delivered them to that place.

Even then, a person who struggles has a better idea of where they are than someone who steps easily into the footprints of the person in front of them.

* * *

Eventually, there was an opportunity to talk to my son about Santa. We were going to a small-town Christmas festival, and I told him he would get to meet someone pretending to be Santa.

“But I want to meet the real Santa,” he said. Before I really had time to formulate them, these words came out of my mouth:

“Well the real Santa lived a long time ago. Many people believe he’s still here, and many people like to pretend he’s still here.”

His eyes went wide.

“PRETEND?” he asked with a furtive grin.

“Yes,” I said.

And that was it. If he needed further conversation, I couldn’t tell.

When we saw Santa at the bank that night, I lifted him up in the line so he could see better.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think he’s the real one!” he whispered back.

I set him down and I felt relieved.

I’d struggled but I’d done right by myself, and he still believed and I was fine with that. And there was room for both of us on the path.

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