Monday, December 22, 2014

This Year's Gift

            The rumors have increased in the third grade to the point they’re impossible to ignore, so the son asks again, “Is Santa real?”  We’ve deflected the question before with variations of “What do you think?” and “Is he real to you?”  This year, however, he’s more insistent, so we decide it’s time to have the talk.
            We’re apprehensive about it because of what happened with his older sister.  A few years ago, she had insisted about the Tooth Fairy, “Tell me the truth.  I want to know the truth.”  So we did, and the truth devastated her.  She had sobbed on her mother’s lap, having immediately understood that it wasn’t just the Tooth Fairy we were talking about, but the Easter Bunny, leprechauns, Santa Claus… They all came crashing down. She realized she had been believing in lies all her life, and she felt betrayed. It was particularly wrenching because she had struggled with her faith in Santa Claus and she come to the conclusion that she had proof.  There were pictures, gifts, eye-witnesses, empirical evidence.
            My wife and I had never intended to do the Santa thing. In fact, before the children arrived, we had a lot of funny ideas about how we would parent.  For one, we believed in the myth that we would be in control.  But the grand-parents introduced Santa early in a big way, and soon we were doing it all – the phone calls, letters, cookies by the fireplace, food for reindeer sprinkled on the lawn,
            After we told our daughter the truth, as her sobbing eventually diminished, what consoled her was that her younger brother didn’t know.  She was in on the secret, and she had a responsibility to keep it.
            Now the moment has come for the son.  How would he react? Tears?  Anger?  Would he too feel betrayed and that everyone he trusted – parents and family and teachers – had been lying to him?
            We mentally brace ourselves, tell him, and he … laughs.  And laughs. It’s as if he has been pranked, as if we have been playing a great joke on him for nine years. 
When he finds out there will still be gifts, he laughs all the more. And, at that point, we discover the daughter has conscientiously kept the secret, in part, because she was afraid once everyone in the house knew, Christmas would disappear.  Without someone believing, we might not bother with a tree or decorations or candy canes or all the trappings.
            After the talk, I keep thinking about my children’s polar reactions and how they embody the masks of drama for this grand play of the holidays.  Weeping and giggling.  What do we do when we find out the fundamental story is a lie?  Cry?  Laugh?
            For the next week, the son keeps checking in and verifying different elements.  One day he asks, “So the basketball hoop?  That came from you?”
            The next day it is, “Reindeer can’t really fly, can they?”
            The day after that he says, “The tooth fairy doesn’t exist, does she?”
            “Where are the teeth?”
            “Your mother has them.”
            “That’s weird,” he says.
One afternoon, he sings the classic grade school variation “Jingle Bells/Batman smells/Robin lays an egg” except he changes it to “Jingle Bells/Santa smells.”  He stops, and says, “Daddy, I can make fun of Santa now.  I can tell jokes about him.”  No longer feeling watched all the time, no longer feeling like he has to stay in Santa’s good graces, he can say what he wants.  He feels liberated.
            And, so do we. This year he hasn’t made a list of pie-in-the-sky requests, things he knows we would never get, but, Santa might.  It’s a relief.  We had grown tired of being Santa’s naysaying foil and, frankly, of not getting credit for the cool gifts we’ve been giving.
One evening, the family in the kitchen, the wife says she needs new tools for the grill, and I say, “Maybe Santa will bring some.”  The son cracks up.  “Yeah,” he says, “Santa” making air quotes with his fingers.  “Wink. Wink.”  And the daughter is happy because finally, we’re all in on it.

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