When I was a kid, Santa Claus came to our house every Christmas, but he was kind of an underachiever. The big presents (like a tabletop hockey game or a new football helmet) always came from my parents, and were placed in wrapped boxes under the tree. Santa, on the other hand, brought an odd assortment of unwrapped lesser gifts.
Always the undies
There were usually some cheap, plastic toys from Chinatown that smelled suspiciously like my grandparents’ apartment. There were always chocolates (the kind of milk chocolate that has that odd, powdery residue on it when you take off the wrapper) covered in colored tin foil, in the shape of angels, Christmas trees and silver bells. There were also candy canes, left in their clear plastic wrappers to maintain their shape despite being broken in several places. And for reasons lost in the annals of family tradition and time, there was always a fresh supply of underwear. Somehow, it never occurred to us that gifts of underpants from a strange old man might be a little worrisome. It was Santa, after all–his ways were mysterious, but unquestionably benign.
The mediocre quality of Santa’s offerings was offset by the fact that we were allowed to get into our stockings even if our parents were still asleep. The tree presents were off limits until they woke up, but Santa’s gifts were fair game as soon as we tumbled out of bed.
On Christmas morning, my brothers and I woke each other the moment any one of us gained consciousness, and we scrambled down the stairs together long before dawn. The living room was bathed in the tacky multicolored lights of our Christmas tree, and our stockings were lined up on the floor in front of the fireplace. It was magic!
We had these cheap felt appliqué stockings, and the straps were too flimsy to support all that chocolate and plastic crap, much less a package of Fruit-of-the-Looms. Still, we dug into them with great excitement. They were a satisfying teaser for the festivities to come, and by the time my parents came down to join us, we had broken at least half of the toys, and eaten most of the candy.
THE inevitable question
Maybe it was Santa’s low profile in our household that allowed us to smoothly negotiate that thorny question that every family must eventually address: “Is Santa real?” My parents came up with a workable response, based on plausible deniability.
“Dad, is Santa real?”
“How should I know? He didn’t come to China.”
“Mom, is Santa real?”
“I guess he must be. Someone’s bringing those presents.”
“But you guys do that . . . right?”
“Really? Does that sound like something we’d do?”
She had a point.
Pretty soon, we just gave up. In the end, our policy was strictly Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We all agreed to act as if Santa was real, without really discussing it. On Christmas Eve, even when we were teenagers and staying up much later than my parents, my mother would shoo us up to our rooms as soon as she got sleepy.
“Go to bed or Santa’s going to skip our house this year.”
I know other families that had a much harder time with the Santa question. A friend of mine was cornered one day after his son heard some disturbing conspiracy theories at school.
“Dad, is Santa real — or have you guys been lying to me all these years? You have to tell me!”
Eventually, he confessed. His son, left reeling from the betrayal and duplicity, didn’t speak to him for a week.
Sticking with the story
With my own kids, I decided that consistency, opaqueness and absolute certainty were the best approaches.
“Dad, is Santa Claus real?”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know — I believe.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means we don’t need proof — we can just have faith.”
“But why do you have faith?”
“Because Santa is real.”
And just like when I was a kid, they eventually stopped asking–but Santa kept coming.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that we should routinely lie to our children. I’m just saying that, in the world we live in, where reality assaults the protective walls of childhood with a sledge hammer every day, maybe a little magic and a little suspension of disbelief are not such terrible things. For them, but also for us.