I will never forget the day I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real.
It was early December, 1984. I was eight-years-old.
For as long as I could remember, Santa had been a huge part of my Christmas experience. I’d go so far as to say that Santa had been my Christmas experience. Every year we’d write our letters to Santa, Mum would post them off, and then we’d wait. On Christmas Eve, we’d get the house set up for him.
We’d move all the presents from Mum and Dad to one side of the tree, hang our stockings, put out a glass of milk and some cookies for him, and don’t forget to leave a carrot for Rudolph! We’d write him a note:
Thank you for coming to our house and bringing us presents. We hope you like the milk and cookies. The carrot is for Rudolph. Have a Merry Christmas.
We love you so much.
Then we’d go to bed and go to sleep. Straight to sleep. Because if we were late to bed, Santa might have to wait for us to fall asleep before he could come in and leave the presents, and then he’d be late to the next house, and then someone might miss out.
Christmas morning would find us awake at 4:00am — with strict instructions not to wake Mum and Dad until 6:00am — and sneaking out to the lounge room. There, piled under the tree, would be piles of presents from Santa. All of them neatly labelled.
To: Jo From: Santa xxx
The handwriting was clearly Santa’s. It didn’t look anything like Mum or Dad’s handwriting. The milk and cookies would be gone, and only the top of the carrot would be left on the plate, with teeth marks from Rudolph! Oh, how I longed to be able to keep that carrot top forever.
But I didn’t have to. The note! Santa had written back to us, in his unfamiliar handwriting:
Thank you for the milk and cookies. Rudolph really liked his carrot. I hope you enjoy your presents. Remember to be good girls and boys next year. Merry Christmas! xxx
Then we’d unpack our Christmas Stockings (filled by Santa) and play with the toys inside until we could wake Mum and Dad up to show them. And boy, weren’t they surprised! Every year, Santa managed to surprise us and them with the number of toys and chocolates he could fit in our stockings. And that was before we even started on the presents under the tree!
Santa was kind of a big deal.
And that year, the year I was eight, promised to be even better. We were living in the U.S. for the first year. We had snow outside (for the first time), an open fireplace for Santa to come down (for the first time), and a bigger tree than I had ever seen before.
But on that day in early December, everything changed.
The subject of Santa Claus came up at school. “Santa isn’t real,” one of the boys said. “It’s just your parents.”
“Is not,” I said, full of righteous indignation. “He’s real. He lives at the North Pole, and–”
One of the girls laughed at me. “You’re so stupid. It’s just grown-ups wearing a costume. That’s why there’s so many Santas in shops.”
“No, they’re Santa’s Helpers,” I said confidently. My parents had explained that phenomenon to me several years earlier. “Santa can’t be everywhere at once, so he hires Helpers to sit in the shops and make lists.”
More kids laughed. I found myself in a ring of children, all of them adamant that Santa wasn’t real. I was about to have another “first time”. I was about to get into a fight. Because I knew Santa was real. I knew it with absolute conviction. My parents would never lie to me.
I’d caught them out on a lie only the December before. Leading up to my Mum’s birthday, she’d said she was turning 21. I wrote “Happy 21st Birthday” on her card, and wished her a happy 21st birthday on the day. And then I was talking about it with a friend at school when I realised the truth: She can’t possibly be 21. If I’m 7, and she’s just turned 21, she would have been 13 when I was born. And that’s obviously impossible.
I confronted her when I got home from school that day.
“I’m not really 21,” she said. “I’m 27. But sometimes it’s nice to pretend to be a different age.”
We’d talked, and she’d apologised for confusing me, and I’d realised that I liked to pretend to be 10, and so I understood. But she’d promised not to “pretend” like that again.
So there was no possible way that she’d lie to me again so soon. Honesty was the most important thing in our household. We (the kids) got in more trouble for lying than any other “crime”. Broke something? Not a problem. Just don’t lie about it. Accidentally dropped your brother and broke his wrist? Not a problem. Just don’t lie about it.
And that’s why my eight-year-old self was willing to get into a fist fight to back up the fact that Santa was real. I knew in my heart that my parents wouldn’t lie to me about something so important.
Fortunately, a teacher broke us up before things got too far. I say “fortunately”, because it was me against about 25 kids by that point. I would have been road-kill. But as I sat on the bus (alone, shunned by my classmates for believing in Santa Claus), their words reverberated in my head. “You’re so stupid. It’s just grown-ups wearing a costume.”
When I got home, I told Mum I needed to talk to her. “The kids at school said Santa isn’t real,” I said, tears in my eyes. “But he is real. Isn’t he?”
She didn’t answer straight away, just took my hand and led me into another room, well away from the ears of my younger siblings.
That didn’t bode well.
“Is Santa Claus real?” I asked. My heart was in my mouth. So much rested on the answer to that question.
Slowly, gently, my mother shook her head. “No,” she said. “But it’s nice to pretend that he is.”
“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t say anything else. My heart was breaking.
“Don’t tell your brother or sister, okay?”
I nodded, and my mother led me back out of the room, and went back to what she’d been doing. I went to my room and cried.
Not because Santa wasn’t real. I didn’t really care where the presents came from or who ate the cookies. The answer to both of those was obvious once the deception had been revealed. I cried because my parents had lied to me. I cried because they’d betrayed the trust I put in them. If they were going to lie about something so important, and go to such an effort to convince me that their lie was the truth (the carrot, the note, the disguised handwriting), how could I trust anything they told me? How could I trust them when they told me that being Honest was the Most Important Thing?
How could I face my classmates the following day, knowing that they’d been right? I had been stupid.
I’d been stupid to believe that my parents would never lie to me.
And there, sitting in my cupboard (where else would a child go to cry in secret?) with tears running down my face, I made a promise to myself. I swore that one day, when I was grown up and I had children, I would never betray them like this. I would never lie to them year after year after year, while simultaneously enforcing the value of Truth and Honesty. I would never go to such lengths to lie to them.
Nothing was ever the same after that. I felt a distance from my parents. (A distance that has only closed in the last handful of years.) I still enjoyed Christmas — still woke up at 4:00am, excited about the magic of the day. But every Christmas reminded me anew of the deception that had been practiced on me and my siblings.
As time went past, I forgot about that promise. Until I had my own children.
I don’t believe in lying to my children. About anything. Sometimes that’s hard when it comes to Santa Claus. And the choice of how to introduce Santa to our kids caused some tension between my husband and I before we came up with a compromise. But I will not lie to my children, nor perpetuate a lie that is told by thousands of parents worldwide.
In our family, Santa is a cross between a story and an imaginary friend. We can talk about him, tell stories about him, and accept that other people treat Santa as though he’s real. But we don’t tell our children that Santa brings presents, or that he makes the decision about how “good” or “bad” you’ve been. We, their parents, are responsible for both those things.
Maybe in years to come, our sons will look back on this time and feel like they missed out on part of the “Magic of Christmas” because we didn’t tell them a magical man in a red suit broke into our house every year and decided how many presents they should get.
Or maybe they’ll appreciate the fact that we never felt it necessary to lie to them. Perhaps they’ll appreciate the real magic of Christmas: families and friends enjoying each other’s company and exchanging gifts in recognition of the love they share.
What do you think of the fat man in the red suit?
28 responses to “Santa Claus: The Magic of Christmas or a Big, Fat, Bearded Lie”
The irony. You’re a fiction writer who can’t lie. Your parents, I’m guessing, only wrote fiction in Santa’s handwriting.
PS-Jewish. We have our own myths.
I know, right? Although I’m fine with telling stories (whether they’re fact or fiction) as long as it’s clear that all the untruths are held within the confines of that story. It’s passing something that we know is only a story off as “real” that I’ll have no truck with.
PS – I specifically aimed to make this non-religious and non-denominational. I believe religious myths and stories are a healthy part of growing up, regardless of your religion. The modern figure of Santa Claus is actually a conglomeration of a number of historical and mythological figures, both Christian and Heathen/Pagan, and not really a genuine part of any religion’s mythology.
I really don’t remember any transition between belief in Santa and participating in the Santa myth, so I guess there was no trauma involved for me. I don’t have children, so I never had to deal with it from that direction. I think your boys will be just fine with your attitude.
As for fiction writers, we may make things up, but we do it to express what we see as truth, if not the actions of the story, then the emotions and the human factor.
Most people aren’t traumatised by the transition. I used to say that I was just a freak and/or over-sensitive, but after doing some research into it over the last couple of years, it turns out that quite a few people have a similar reaction to the one I had. So we may be only a small percentage of the population, but we do exist. I would have much rather an easy transition, though!
I totally agree re: fiction writing. One of my favourite quotes (from Chuck Wendig) is: Writers are liars who use those lies to tell the truth.
We haven’t got to the Santa question yet. As far as Small Man is concerned, he is a slightly frightening man in a red suit that we have to take a photo with every year.
It was only last year that we had to make the concerted decision as to how to approach it — retailers took matters out of our hands when we were shopping last December. So if you’re (un)lucky, this could be your year.
Best of luck! 🙂
An 8 year old girl living in a strange country going to a strange school with none of your familar supports. No wonder it hit you so hard.
I feel sorry for your mother. She didn’t meant to hurt you like that. She must have been very sad when you distanced yourself from her for all those years. As for your boys, they will be fine, their mother loves them and cares enough to worry about them, thats all they need. Enjoy them.
I am looking forward to Christmas eventhough my kids are older and we are struggling with bills. But for us its a very ‘family’ time.
We’re the same – not a lot of spare money around, but the most fun thing about Christmas is spending it with family and friends. 🙂
As for Mum — I agree completely. She was doing what every good parent does: doing the best she could. She was also finding it difficult in a new country, with 3 children under 8 to look after, a husband working long hours, and no family or friends within a thousand miles. I certainly bear her no ill will, and I assure you that the distance was not solely of my doing, nor was this the only contributing factor.
The important thing is that we’ve got a better relationship now than we ever had — including when I was a small child. And I’ll be taking my boys to spend Christmas with Mum and Dad again this year.
Merry Christmas to you. 🙂
Wonderful beautiful amazingly perfectly written post. I remember the excitement of Santa, though we have a Jewish mom so we did the Santa thing AND the Hanukkah thing. I love the tree and I love the candles. I wish Santa didn’t exist. I never liked the whole Santa thing, not JUST because I wanted credit for everything but because Santa and the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy all seemed a bit creepy to me. My sister will sing you a different tune about the magic of Christmas and Easter, but she also ignores the Jewish side of her family. This is our first year that Noah doesn’t believe and I’m thrilled about it. We can embrace everything without that creepy man breaking into our house and rifling through our things. That’s another thing – Noah has OCD and anxiety. He actually worries about that stuff.
I really really enjoyed this post Jo. xxoo
Thanks, Kim. That means a lot to me. xx
And I’d never thought about the effect of Santa on a child with OCD and anxiety. How terrifyingly out of control that must have felt for the poor boy. I’m sure it was almost a relief for him to realise that Santa wasn’t real. As long as he kept getting the presents, of course. 🙂
I don’t think I ever believed in Santa. Even as a little kid, I felt like I was in on the thing, playing along for the sake of the other kids. I was a weird kid. Based on my drawings, I must assume I was obsessed with the Easter Bunny, or at least the idea of the Easter Bunny.
I like the approach you took with your kids, though. 🙂 Pretending around other, younger kids is also fun. I remember that being exciting! Like we were all in a play together or something.
Yeah, my husband was most concerned that our boys not “ruin it” for anybody else. And I agree with him. But games of pretend are fun, no matter how old you are.
Hahaha. I actually like the Easter Bunny better myself, even these days. He’s less judgemental, for a start. 🙂
I have a serious problem with Santa Claus. Kids who have nothing, for example, get a shoe for Christmas while kids who have everything get an iPad and an xbox, and the kid who gets the shoe wonders “what did I do wrong?”
We are on a Santa wavelength. I just wrote a post on how Santa is kind of a dick.
I read your post, and thought it was brilliant as always. Read it, liked it, shared it on Facebook.
You’re so right. Especially these days.
“Santa gave me this cool iPhone and a new games console! What did he give you?”
“Um. Some new t-shirts and a pair of socks.”
“Wow. Santa must hate you.”
We lie. I think it’s worth it for them to have this little joy while they’re still young enough to look at the world with wonder. That said, I think the way you handle it is sweet and lovely. I’m guessing later on they won’t mind at all.
Thanks, Bridget. 🙂
It’s funny, but I have a healthy dose of cognitivie dissonance when I read or hear stories like this about the traumatic revelation of THE TRUTH about Santa.
I never found out that Santa wasn’t real. I have no memory of a traumatic discovery of the truth. Instead, it was a gradual thing. As a very young child I believed in Santa. Neither my parents nor my peers ever told me differently. But somewhere along the way I wised up, and figured out what was really going on. But I have this thing I do when I experience that kind of cognitivie dissonance: when I learn that the facts differ from my currently-held beliefs, I adjust my beliefs so that they accomodate the facts, often in a way that protects the belief. Apparently I’ve always done this, though it’s a process for me, not an overnight revelatory moment.
In the case of Santa… the adjustment in time was that Santa Clause is the physical representation – a symbol – of the “spirit” of Christmas. We depict him as a jolly, kindly old man who delights in giving gifts to children with no thought of benefit to himself. In this way, he represents our inner desire to be truly benevolent, and that’s the spirit to which we aspire at Christmas.
But reading stories like yours makes me worry. I dodged that particular childhood trauma by dint of my particular psychology. But what about my own children? Will they be so lucky, or will they have the trauma? I don’t know… right now B.T. is too young to really get it one way or the other – he’s just this week learned to recognize the image of Santa as a specific and unique representation. (He gleefully went back and forth between a Santa ornament on our tree and a gourd painted like Santa on the bookshelf pointing and shouting “Santa!” – or more actually something closer to “Tanta!” which is about as close as he can get at the moment.) But Dear Wife and I are going to have to figure this one out ourselves. (Dear Wife simillarly had no traumatic event, though she did have a revelatory moment of a sort, but it’s not my place to share the specifics of her story.)
In all fairness, my reaction was quite unusual. Based on the research that I’ve done into this (I’m a writer. I research everything, okay?), there are three common reactions:
(1) The child has already worked it out for himself/herself, and just needs validation of his/her own understanding. This is an easy transition, without any real trauma. This is what happens with the majority of children.
(2) The child bursts into tears and is incredibly upset — because no Santa = no presents. Once the child understands that presents are still going to be forthcoming, he/she moves on. This isn’t particularly traumatic (unless it’s handled quite badly) and is often what happens when the child is really too young to fully understand the difference between Santa and Christmas. This is the second most common reaction.
(3) The child is angry and feels betrayed by his/her parents. This is quite traumatic for the child but fairly rare.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should do things my way. Far from it. I just think it’s important that people think about the different ways their own children might react. See, if my Mum had said something like, “No, Santa doesn’t really bring you presents, but he represents the Spirit of Christmas,” and then gone on with the exact point you made above, I would have been less hurt. But poor Mum did the best she could without any understanding of what I was feeling.
So my advice would be to just go with your instincts but be aware that B.T. may not react the same way you and/or your wife did.
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Ah….Guilty, Guilty. I lie to my kids about it and I don’t feel too guilty about it. I think I was a selfish little kid who knew around 8 that he wasn’t real but told my parents I thought he was so I could keep getting lots of presents til I was 10. I discovered the inverse relationship between pretending to believe and the number of gifts under the tree through my observations of my non-believing friends. I respect your honesty with your kids- I’m just excited to live vicariously through them. 🙂
As long as it makes you all happy, sounds ideal to me.
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