Many of my childhood memories have vanished. My little sister recalls details of road trips with mom, holidays, unsuccessful pranks, all with relative ease. My cache of memories is more limited. When I am able to muster up the actual details of a childhood story, I pat myself on the back. These memories, I treasure them, I hold them close. I play them over, finding clues. They help me understand myself.
I remember Christmas Eve when I was in first grade. Mom and I were in the minivan, headed to Hy-Vee to shop for some last minute provisions. We braved the crowd, the check-out lines, and we had to stop at the video desk, in the front of the store, for a vague something or other. I stood by my mom’s side at the counter, but she told me to look at a movie a few shelves away. Confusedly, I walked over and looked for the movie. I walked back to my mom, who was now speaking in hushed tones with the teenaged boy behind the counter. They both directed me, again, to walk down the aisle and around the corner to look at some new releases. I felt awkward, but I did as they said. I didn’t know what to look at, and I could see my mom nervously finishing her business.
When we left the store, in retrospect, my mom thought I was much less naïve than I actually was. She thought I saw her buying a Nintendo for me and my sisters, the big draw, the main gift. But I was actually oblivious.
What an exciting Christmas! A Nintendo, our own Nintendo! Plus some Barbies and accessories, a stocking full of candy, packed with love by Santa Claus himself! He ate the cookies and drank the milk we left out for him, and left a note of gratitude (Santa, thanking us! What a guy!). I relished the tradition of it all. My sister Ellen, four years my senior, had tried to tell me that Santa wasn’t real. It’s true that I believed everything Ellen told me without question. But I would not entertain the thought that Santa was a fake! Besides, my mom emphatically reassured me of the fact of his existence, repeatedly, while glaring at Ellen. What’s not to believe? Of course, most importantly, I really wanted to believe in Santa Claus.
I certainly don’t blame my mom, I think I was blind. Look at the goddamn facts, baby girl! Your mom is Santa! I laugh at myself now. My mom asked me, privately, later on that Christmas day, if I had seen her buy the Nintendo at Hy-Vee the night before. My jaw dropped, my brain tingled.
“What the f**k?!” I would have said if I was my thirty-year-old self, back then. But probably was more like, “You really are Santa?!”
My mom, who must have been stunned at what a blind moron she had for a daughter, said, “Ellen told you I was Santa. You already knew it, didn’t you?”
I hadn’t known it. I knew he was real! With all my heart! Until my mom told me that I was the unwitting dolt in the center of a Truman Show-like conspiracy of epic proportions. I felt like such a fool! And I was crushed, I felt like my grandpa had died.
The next year, at school, I overheard something my classmate, Lindsay Henderson, told our teacher, Mrs. Peccoraro.
“I just know Santa is real, because last year, he brought me a new bike. And I know, for a fact, that my mom and dad could not afford to buy me a bike for Christmas!” Lindsay said in her sweet Southern drawl.
I felt a mixture of pity and jealousy for Lindsay. Her parents had really succeeded in pulling the wool over that poor girl’s eyes. On the other hand, I knew the truth, verified by my own mother, and I knew it was better than the lie, even if it hurt.
Once I had my own children, I was confused about how to deal with Christmas, Santa, all of it. My husband and I, both atheists, wanted our kids to benefit from the fun traditions of the religious holidays. But we also saw Santa Claus as a marketing tool for Christianity. Our kids already had plenty of exposure to Christian traditions. Our choice was to blaze our own path. Although some extended family members rolled their eyes, we decided not to lie to our kids about Santa’s existence. Even though we participate in the fun by giving our kids one gift “from Santa” (the rest are just from Mom and Dad) and filling their stockings. We spend time with family and all the while they know that Santa is just a fun thing to play. We tell them, in all its biblical detail, the Christian story of Christmas.
Santa has actually become a perfect metaphor to demonstrate to our daughters what God is to adults. Our approach has worked well for our family. Now that our daughters are old enough to understand, they don’t seem to feel that they’re missing out on anything. In fact, they enjoy being “in on the secret.” They also understand that people have lots of different beliefs—we reinforce this fact by teaching them about many different religions. They know that they can choose to believe whatever they want and that mom and dad will love and support them. My middle daughter jokes now that she believes in “Santa God.” And once again, this mom is grateful that she didn’t cave in to the pressure of conformity.
Dexter Elf by Dirty Diaper Laundry, http://www.babyrabies.com