The “S” Word
By Kathy Leonard Czepiel
For years I dreaded the big talk about the “S” word.
Not sex, no siree. Santa. I feared the awful consequences of confessing to my children that I had fabricated a gigantic lie, assisted by almost every other adult in the world, and fed it to them repeatedly over their most impressionable years.
It all started innocently enough. I grew up in a Christmas-loving family. My father is a minister, so the holiday always began with the four Sundays in Advent and gathered momentum through that dark first month of winter until it reached the climax of a candlelit service on Christmas Eve, at the end of which we’d sing “Joy to the World” and push open the double wooden church doors to the magical night. It was always one of my favorite moments of the year.
Truthfully, my father is also a sucker for Christmas in all its mercantile excess. He begins playing Bing Crosby’s and Nat King Cole’s Christmas albums on Thanksgiving Day, and he actually enjoys going to the mall and being bandied about in a crowd of frantic shoppers. Every year when we were kids, we decorated an eight-foot tree full of chatchkas. My mother wove red and green string around the newel post and through the spindles of the stairway banister. She then hung the more than 100 cards we had received as if they were colorful clothes on a line. On Christmas morning, my father made my younger brothers and me wait interminably at the top of those stairs while he set up his movie lights for the same shot, year after year, of us running down in our pajamas to see what Santa had brought. We never spent a lot of money on Christmas, but it was undoubtedly the biggest celebration of the year. So it was only logical that I would want the same for my own children.
My daughters were born in Denver, far from my East Coast hometown. Our ranch house didn’t have a grand staircase to run down, and we didn’t have a bay window for an eight-foot tree. We didn’t even have a fireplace, but Santa found us just the same. It was quite a few years before it occurred to me that I might have Christmased myself into a tight corner. As my daughter Ellie turned seven, I thought of the summer day when, at that same age, I’d visited my father in his study and he’d taken me on his lap and told me the truth—about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, all at once. I’d cried. Even as an adult, I’d never understood why he’d felt compelled to tell me at so young an age. Until I had a seven-year-old of my own.
Seven-year-olds get jokes. They can tell you obscure facts, like the difference between magma and lava that maybe you knew when you were seven but sure as heck don’t remember now. They understand injustice and feel compassion, though they don’t always exercise it with their siblings. They are fully developed people with their own opinions and their own personalities who just need a lot more life experience in order to successfully navigate the world. To dupe such a person with a story no self-respecting thinker would believe had begun to seem downright deceitful. But I didn’t have the heart to do anything about it. Not when Ellie was seven. Instead, I did what many mothers of my generation do in a time of crisis: research.
I began an informal survey into how people had found out the truth about Santa Claus and whether it had permanently scarred them. I asked the college freshmen whom I teach. Some of them smiled and shrugged. One girl said she was fourteen before she found out. One got a faraway look and said, “Yeah. That was pretty shocking.” I thought I might be sick.
Then my childhood friend Dan came to visit. He has three kids, and seven years more parenting experience than I have. So, I asked him, how did breaking the news about Santa Claus go in his house? “We never really started the Santa thing,” he said. “The presents always came from us.” If only I’d had such foresight.
I persisted and asked how he’d found out about Santa Claus. He and his younger brother, when they were six and eight, wondered how Santa Claus fit through the pipe of their wood stove. Budding scientists, they devised a test. They set a trip wire inside the stove. But Dan is also a philosopher, always considering the cosmic consequences of human action, so he told his mother. She, of course, tripped the wire. And, for extra effect, left a single black boot stuck in the stove. This was her fatal error, for Dan’s brother recognized the boot from their basement. As he told me this story, Dan nodded thoughtfully. “I think he was pretty angry with Mom for a while after that,” he said.
Concurrent with my anecdotal research, I got online and read up on the real Santa Claus. I learned that he was Saint Nicholas of Myra, in what is now Turkey. He is remembered for his many acts of generosity and kindness, particularly toward children, but the story that seems to have begun the Santa Claus myth is about a poor family with three daughters whose father could not afford a dowry for them. As each daughter came of age, Nicholas put enough gold for her dowry into a sack and secretly tossed it through her window at night, securing her future. I thought about how to tell this story to Ellie and bought two beautifully illustrated books to help me. I thought about telling her that Santa Claus lives on in all our hearts, yada, yada, except I knew that eight-year-olds—because by now she was eight—have a healthy skepticism of sentimental metaphors.
That Christmas, Ellie was missing both her front teeth. Aside from the obvious song sung that season, I was terrified of the domino effect. If she found out about the Tooth Fairy, well, it was all over with. I thought she was on to us when she decided not to leave one of her teeth for pickup. But on Christmas Eve, she was heartbreakingly worried about getting to bed on time so as not to discourage jolly old Saint Nick from showing up.
It was easy to ignore the whole thing through the rest of the winter, and into the spring and summer. In the fall, Ellie turned nine, and then it was Christmas again. Surely she must have heard about Santa at school by now. I resolved to tell her the truth if she asked. One morning I asked her younger sister Meggie if she was going to be brave enough to sit on Santa’s lap this year, then offhandedly said to Ellie, “Do you still care about visiting Santa?” My hopes that she would casually shrug her shoulders in that too-cool preteen way were dashed when she smiled shyly and ducked her head and said, “Yeah.” And she did. She sat right up there on his lap with the biggest darned smile full of adult teeth.
I continued conducting my totally unscientific survey while my beautifully illustrated books about Santa Claus moldered in the attic. My cousin Linda, at the age of 37, reported she still believed in Santa. “Have you ever seen a million dollars?” she asked. “Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” She had recently become a mother herself and had not yet had the illusion-dashing experience of actually placing the gifts from Santa Claus under the tree herself, so I made a mental note to check back later and see how her faith was holding up.
Then, the following spring, Meggie lost her first tooth, and I had a moment of brilliance. We all helped her tuck the tooth under her pillow. When she was asleep, I crept into Ellie’s room and whispered conspiratorially, “You know the Tooth Fairy is pretend, right?” It was dark, and I couldn’t see whether this was news or not. “Come on,” I said. “You can be the Tooth Fairy tonight.” Together we sneaked into Meggie’s room, and Ellie, frightened and proud, slid the tooth out and the money in. Now, I thought, there’s a long summer for this information to stew. If there’s no Tooth Fairy, then there’s no . . .
Towards the end of the summer, we had the beginning of the other “S” talk. Some of the fifth-grade girls were starting to look pretty womanly, and I figured they were going to be shown some thirty-year-old movie with cartoon birds and bees flying around in it. This conversation went fine, but on Saint Nicholas, we hadn’t made much progress.
Ellie turned ten, and Christmas approached again. I was determined to tell her this time, but my calm friend Maureen, mother of four, talked me down. “They’ll figure it out themselves,” she assured me. (She had found out by snooping in the attic as a kid.) I trust Maureen’s judgment, so I let the holiday pass. Again.
What finally did it was the baby stoplight. Ellie and I were spring cleaning. It was the kind of cleaning where you pull out every dusty little scrap of construction paper and abandoned birthday party favor from under the bed and behind the bookcases. On Ellie’s closet floor, I found the baby stoplight.
The December Ellie was three, when we still lived in Denver and hadn’t yet returned East, she told us all she wanted for Christmas was a baby stoplight. At first we thought this was novel and cute, but over the course of several weeks, her answer to the question “What do you want for Christmas?” never varied. All she really wanted was a baby stoplight. We asked every probing question imaginable to figure out what she had in mind. Was it for her baby dolls, or a real baby? Or was it just a “little” stoplight? Was there one at daycare? Ellie responded with unconcerned silence. Santa would know what she meant.
I was eight months pregnant and in no shape to be taking on secret craft projects on the guest room floor, but finally I resigned myself to the situation and got to work. I poked a dowel up the center of a cylindrical oatmeal container and housed it in a slightly larger box with three holes cut in it. After studying local traffic lights, I even fashioned Dixie cups into little sun shades to glue over the holes in my box. I painted the whole thing black, and on the oatmeal canister, I glued circles in red, yellow, and green at different points so Ellie could turn the dowel to make any one of the colors appear in the correct window. On Christmas morning, there it was, the homemade baby stoplight under the Christmas tree.
“Is that what you meant?” we asked. She nodded her head and turned the dowel knob. Damn, that Santa Claus sure was smart.
Now the baby stoplight had been excavated from the darkest corner of Ellie’s closet. She was ten years old, and I’m not even sure she still knew what it was, but it had made the cross-country journey and survived all this time, though quite a bit worse for the wear. I was moved by the sight of it. I sat on the rug and turned the wobbly dowel.
“I want to tell you the story about this,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. But it might bum you out.” I was in it now. Then I whispered, “Daddy and I are Santa Claus.”
She smiled at me. “I know.”
The kids at school had said stuff, of course. And then there was the website from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (www.NoradSanta.org, for those still mired in the Santa predicament) that tracks Santa’s journey around the world every Christmas Eve. As Ellie pointed out, it’s computer animated.
No need to bring out the books, the “Santa was once a real person” stories. She had grown into the knowledge of the myth herself. I wondered whether later she would have a private moment of sad surprise, but if she did, she didn’t show it. She’d already stepped over the threshold into a world in which she knew a thing or two about politics, race, religion, history, and human cruelties and frailties. I was proud of my growing-up kid, who had sat up late on election night to watch the returns and color in a map, just as I had with my dad in 1976. I was proud of the research she’d been doing on pollution and her insistence that our family be more conscious of its environmental impact. I was proud of the conversations she’d had with friends about differences and getting along and of the questions she was asking the world. She knew it was time to leave pretend Santa behind where he belongs, in the world of “little kids.”
But then I got to thinking about something else that had happened during that baby stoplight Christmas in Denver. And I realized that for the past four years I’d been so worried about the falsehood that I’d lost touch with the truth.
Eight months pregnant with Meggie that Christmas, I’d felt a brand new kinship with Mary of Nazareth, who rode pregnant on the back of a donkey across the desert to Bethlehem, while I wasn’t even willing to get on an airplane. I’d sat in church on Christmas Eve singing those deeply familiar carols as my baby rolled inside me. (That line in “Silent Night”? About “how silently the wondrous gift is given”? A guy wrote that.) The memory from that Christmas which stood out most was of the little party that Ellie’s daycare provider threw. All the children and their parents gathered in her finished basement, and then Santa Claus came ho-ho-ing down the stairs. Oh, the astonished looks on the kids’ faces! In his big sack (usually a black garbage bag) he had something special for each of them. On his way out the door that year, Santa saw me standing there—I was hard to miss—and he reached out his white-gloved hand and touched my giant belly. “Good luck, Mama, with your baby,” he said. In that moment all my adult information fell away, and I felt an incredible surge of happiness as I basked in the fact: Santa Claus had blessed my baby.
Chalk it up to hormones or some powerful psychological hangover from childhood, but for me, that moment was enchanted, as real as the moment when, at five years old, I ran into the living room in the glare of my father’s movie lights to see the baby doll I’d dreamed of waiting under the tree. This is a truth I cannot explain to Ellie, or even to myself. It speaks to the power of storytelling and shared secrets and our ability to inhabit places beyond the purported limits of our world. Being a kid is like that, and who better than Santa to help us remember, even as adults, how to get there? Maybe my cousin Linda, the believer, was on to something. Maybe once in a while, if we let him, Saint Nicholas can still toss a gift through our grownup windows.
About the Author: Kathy Leonard Czepiel’s debut novel, A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster, 2012), was named one of the best fiction books of the year by Kirkus Reviews. The recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. Learn more about Kathy at http://kathyleonardczepiel.com.
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