I don’t remember if there was a time that I was one hundred percent sold on the story of Santa Claus. I was more of a casual fan of the character. Believe it or not, I was actually a pretty good kid, so this supposed behavioral contract between kids and parents and some old white-haired dude in Canada was never held over my head. I had presents labeled from Santa that appeared on Christmas morning among the other gifts, but it was my understanding that my parents deserved most of the credit for that. And they spoiled me, which is where my disinterest in the whole system comes from. I was going to get gifts anyway. I gained an extra side to my family when my dad remarried, so with or without Santa I had more gifts than I knew what to do with. There is a family video of me sitting in a valley between mountains of empty boxes and crumpled wrapping paper, and I have an exhausted look on my face. If I could have hired someone else to open my gifts for me, I would have. That way I could have spent valuable time playing with my Cowboy Curtis doll.
It was understood that I was too old to believe in Santa Claus by the time I was 10, but for some reason, that was the time I chose to rekindle my feelings. If there were any, mind you. As I said, I don’t recall having worries about which list he was putting me on, but something about that Christmas made me want to believe again. I think it was because my youngest brother was experiencing his first Christmas, and subconsciously I was becoming aware that my childhood was over halfway finished. I knew more than he did about the world, and I envied his innocence. I wanted to believe like him, in defiance of the certainty in my own mind that Santa Claus was in fact a myth and he did not exist.
So, I started searching for proof. I asked all my teachers at school if they still believed in Santa Claus, and the most common answer they gave me was that they believed in the “Spirit of Christmas”. I had a strong confirmation bias, so I took that as being the grown-up way to say Santa Claus. One teacher actually told me about a gift she received and did not know who gave it to her. She was a masterful teacher, someone who was born to be molding minds. She was my music teacher, and she taught music in a way that stuck with us all. Her talent was how she brought things down to our level. She knew exactly what to say so that she would not actually answer my question but still keep my faith alive. She said someone gave her a statue for her yard, like a lawn jockey. (It may not have been a lawn jockey, but that’s the image that is stuck in my head). She said that it was at Christmas time, and she didn’t know who put it there. The message of the story, the one that she delivered flawlessly without saying the words out loud, was that if she didn’t know who had given her the statue, then who else could it have been but the professional gift-giver himself?
So that was it. None of the adults I talked to had confirmed my suspicions that Santa was not real, so I told myself he was. I don’t recall if I asked a family member, though, probably because they would have told me to grow up, as was their mantra during those years of my life. They were the ones doing the things I had zero interest in like paying bills and going to work, so I left them to that. The loudest voice among those was my step-dad who reminded me every chance he could of how good I had it. His hope above all was for me to grow up and have kids as quickly as possible so I could “pay for my raising”. When I did something that he thought was immature, he would always ask me my age and then round up. I was always going on whatever year was next, so I needed to start acting like it.
Fortunately, it was not him but my mother and grandmother that had the talk with me on Christmas morning. As I sat there on the couch, my mom beside me and my grandma over in her recliner, they explained to me quite delicately that Santa Claus was not a real person. They said the character of Santa was inspired by an actual person many years ago that gave gifts to children. Of course, I knew that already, so I handled it quite well. Even though I had hoped that the gifts underneath the Christmas tree would multiply while I was asleep, I knew that it was not meant to be. One of the five stages of grief is denial, and I was fully committed to it; grieving for Christmases past when the burden of knowledge was not so heavy on my shoulders. The side of my brain that wanted magic in movies to be real again was hoping the stories were true. I have not, however, until now considered what it would have done to my brain if Kris Kringle had made an appearance. If it had happened that way and this jolly old elf had somehow gained access to my grandparents’ house, stolen milk and cookies, and left us a bunch of random boxes under the tree, they would have been surprised, too, but in a completely different way. Imagine the irony of preparing the night before to tell your son the next morning that it was time to put away this childish notion of a fictional character that magically flew around the world in one night when in fact it was all true and there is actually an ancient toymaker that lives at the North Pole and he has been watching you and your family sleep every night.
Now that I am an adult, I understand what the teachers meant when they were talking about the “Spirit of Christmas”. It’s about the way we all felt back before we found the greys in between the blacks and whites; when there were just yes or no answers. Will there be gifts? Yes. Will there be work? No. Are we going to Grandma’s? Absolutely. And when we arrived at Grandma’s, everyone was there that we wanted to see, and we took the time to enjoy each other’s company. We’re looking to recreate that every year, and the older we get the more difficult it is. Folks get old and can’t travel. Young folks get married and have to split the same amount of time between double the families. But year in and year out, we all still try. Whether you’re a decker of the halls or the Grinch who follows behind and tears it all down, chances are you’ll end up at someone’s house Christmas Day eating carbs and meats and wading through mounds of discarded wrappings. And if you’re lucky, one or two of the gifts under your tree Christmas morning will be addressed to you from that jolly old elf we used to hear so much about.