Back when I was a perfect parent (in other words, before I had kids), I had certain lofty ideals about the kind of mother I would be. With the smarmy assurance only the truly ignorant can muster, I announced to all and sundry that my children would never eat junk food or watch television. I would never raise my voice to them. And I certainly wouldn’t buy into the Santa myth — my children would know the truth about Christmas right from the start.
Yeah, right. A few short years later, the staff at my local McDonald’s routinely greeted us by name, I’d long since lost control of the TV remote, and on more than one shameful occasion my throat was ripped to shreds from hollering at my brood. What’s more, I proved to be no match for the commercial juggernaut that is Santa. With every passing Christmas Eve, as I wolfed down lukewarm milk and cookies, I was uncomfortably aware that the moment of truth was inching ever closer.
The day of reckoning came, as such days are wont to do, with no warning, no inkling of the disaster that was about to strike. One minute Elder Daughter and I were eating lunch together, happy and carefree. The next minute, my painstakingly-built house of lies came crashing down around me.
“Mommy,” my darling asked, full of freckled innocence, “is Santa Claus real?”
She continued to munch on her sandwich, sweetly confident of the “yes” that was surely coming her way. I allowed myself a split second of blind panic, then pulled myself together. I could do this. Hadn’t I dealt — quite masterfully, might I add — with “where do babies come from?” Hadn’t I handled “what is ‘died’?” with panache? This Santa thing would be a piece of cake.
“Let me tell you a story,” I began, “about a man named St. Nicholas.” Elder Daughter listened with rapt attention as I told her that St. Nicholas lived a long time ago, loved children and gave all his money to charity. She gasped when I got to the part about him throwing presents through poor children’s windows, and clapped her hands in delight when she heard that sometimes the gifts landed in stockings that were drying by the fire.
I took a deep breath. So far, so good. Now came the tricky part. “Then a very sad thing happened,” I said. “Nicholas died.”
She nodded knowingly. “And on the third day, he rose again.”
“Er — not exactly.” Ever the coward, I pounced on this God-given distraction and played it for all it was worth, discoursing at some length on the death and resurrection of Jesus before segueing neatly into his birth and the origins of Christmas. I discussed the metamorphosis of the Dutch Sinterklaas into Santa Claus, and how a writer named Clement Moore and an artist named Thomas Nast shaped our modern perceptions of the Yuletide season. I bombarded her with information because I knew the minute I stopped talking, a magical part of her childhood would be over.
And I couldn’t bear it.
Eventually, of course, I ran out of words. “So the spirit of St. Nicholas lives on in our hearts, which means there’s a little bit of Santa in all of us,” I finished lamely.
Comprehension dawned slowly, and I watched helplessly as she struggled with this colossal act of betrayal — the first of her young life. She wept inconsolably, grief shaking her tiny frame. “Mommy,” she sobbed, “I really wanted to believe in him. Why did you have to tell me?”
I held her close, silently crying, “Why did you have to ask?”
The storm gradually subsided, and we sat together awhile, lost in our own thoughts. Suddenly the whisper of a smile flashed across my daughter’s tear-stained face, and she gazed up at me impishly through damp lashes. “So that’s why Daddy always wants to leave Santa beer instead of milk!”
In that moment, I had a fleeting glimpse of the woman she would become: Strong. Resilient. Willing to believe. The truth about Santa chipped away a little bit of her trust in the world, but I had no doubt she’d get over it. And maybe — someday — so will I.