Friday, January 7, 2011

The Talk

A few weeks ago, Eiledon and I had “the talk.” Not THAT talk! We’ve had an open dialog on THAT subject for over a year now. No, I’m talking about the Santa Claus talk. I had long been dreading it, that time in her life when she realized her parents, along with most of the adult world, had perpetrated the ultimate hoax on her for years.

I had no idea how she would take it, because my own experience had been so different. I can’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus, most likely because I had an older brother, precocious in the extreme, who caught my parents red-handed one December and passed the revelation along to the rest of us. But my parents never really played into the Santa mystique. We never had pictures on Santa’s lap, and when we did sit on Santa’s lap after the Sunday School Christmas Program, we all knew it was really Mr. Vanstrom in a fake beard. Under the tree each year there might be a gift or two “from Santa” but we all just sort of laughed and knew it was from Mom and Dad.

My husband’s family, on the other hand, cultivated a rich and detailed Santa mythology. They always saw Santa before Christmas each year to make their wishes. They opened their gifts to one another on Christmas Eve, and then Santa came that night and brought a few more gifts to be opened in the morning. Santa filled the stockings, Santa put the candy canes on the tree, and Santa left the Whitman’s Sampler for the family to enjoy. Santa’s presents were always wrapped in plain, brown paper and he always left an empty milk glass and the last little bite of the cookies left out for him. And, of course, Santa always left a note, written in big, black, shaky handwriting, congratulating Dan and Nate on having been such good boys that year, and politely thanking them for the cookies.

When Dan and I had our own children he made it plain that he wanted to continue his family’s Santa traditions. At first I argued because I’m lazy and it just sounded like too much work. Then I argued because I deeply believed—and still do, somewhat—that Santa Claus represents nothing but the crass commercialization of what ought to be a rather humble religious observance. A little later, I got all Doris Walker on his ass, refusing to perpetrate such nonsense on my impressionable children and deliberately LIE to them until they got smart enough to do the math and physics themselves.

I lost.

We have truly wonderful pictures of the kids on Santa’s lap which, looked at together, are a hilarious record of our kids’ development over the years. Our annual dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s on a slow-paced weeknight, which precedes the visit to the Big Man himself, has become a cherished family tradition. There’s something simple and charming about gifts wrapped in brown paper, plain candy canes that magically appear on the tree, and a piece of fruit in the toe of each stocking, even if it is buried under enough sugary crap to choke a horse. We have heartwarming notes the kids have left on the table with cookies each year. And I have many sweet memories of the kids’ reactions on Christmas morning when the one thing they most wanted for Christmas was there under the tree, when it clearly hadn’t been the night before.

But now Eiledon is eleven, and while I pray that she hangs on to her wide-eyed, wild, creative spirit, I know she lives in the real world with a lot of other almost-teens struggling to figure out what’s truth and what’s bull. She started asking last Christmas, but only half-heartedly, not really wanting an answer. Then this year the angst became unbearable. Every time Dan answered her question, “Well, what do you think, Eiledon?” I could see the painful struggle in her eyes, between wanting an answer and not wanting an answer, all the while suspecting the answer but hoping upon hope that so long as no one confirmed it, anything was possible.

I sat silently and uncomfortably by. I hated her confusion and I hated my complicity in creating it. And while it’s one thing for Dan (43) and his mom (70) to speak earnestly to one another about Santa, almost making him real by sheer force of will, it was more than I could bear to see a conflicted pre-adolescent trying to keep one foot on each side of the great divide.

Finally one night, as I sat with her at bedtime, she said again—asking, but not asking directly—“I just wish I knew for sure one way or the other.” I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yes!” she cried.

I sighed and smiled sadly and she knew before I said a word. “There is no fat man in a red suit who flies around the world in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer delivering toys to millions of children in one night.”

The relief was palpable. I’m not sure which of us was more relieved. Possibly it was a draw. She said: “I didn’t think so,” and smiled a real, easy smile. “It’s sort of ridiculous to think it’s even possible.”

I smiled back, glad to be on equal footing with my wonderful daughter, grateful to have been so easily forgiven for my years of elaborate dishonesty. She seemed instinctively to understand that it was never malicious. That she ought not to feel stupid for not having figured it out sooner, nor betrayed by her most trusted source of information.

We talked a little about the “spirit” of Santa—the idea of selfless, even anonymous giving that expects nothing in return, except maybe good behavior and a couple cookies. I told her that, to this day, her father and grandmother will not say that Santa isn’t real. For them, the mythology is deeply entwined with family history and that, in and of itself, makes it true, gives it substance, imbues it with life.

Believe it or not, my eleven-year-old got it. Maybe it’s the Watson genes. In any case, we ended our conversation feeling closer, both relieved of our burdens and grateful to be moving forward. But just before I got ready to leave the room, I turned back to her and said, “Don’t tell Gavin. He may not be ready yet.” She assured me she wouldn’t breathe a word.

The “bad mom” in me secretly hopes she does.


  1. Wow. What an engaging story, and well-crafted piece of prose. You're not only a good mom, but a good writer, too. :)

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Stef! And thanks for reading! :)

  3. Yep, the reality of Santa was taken from me at a young age too since I am the youngest of 4 kids. In fact, in First Grade we had to write a letter to Santa and I was already questioning his existence. The letter was posted in the local paper. I was seven. It was definitely funny to go back and read as one of my classmates had kept the newspaper clipping. I guess Nate and I never had the argument as to whether or not we were going to foster the myth. I think we both probably automatically think believing in Santa is part of the magic of being a kid and the magic of Christmas, however long it lasts. How sad it would have been to NEVER have thought Santa was real. I'm surprised other kids didn't ruin for your kids in school first. Seems like there's always some obnoxious kid running around saying "Santa isn't real anyway!"