When the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.
Unpacking the Christmas decorations, I pulled out the small crocheted “I BELIEVE IN SANTA” pillow that Liddy loves so much and handed it to her. I watched closely as she walked around the house with it – she finds a new spot for it every year – and felt relief when she ultimately placed it in the entryway, smiling to herself a little grimly. At least, I thought, She didn’t refuse to put it up.
When my kids were tiny I was on the fence about how to handle the Santa story. It’s true that I spent my own early years as a firm believer and had many magical Christmases as a result. But as an adult, a little bit of cynicism crept in. We were lying to our kids, and to what end? On top of that, in our community, we’re surrounded by families with different traditions. Should kids who weren’t waking up to a bounty of gifts under a glittery evergreen be expected to play along?
But I came around to the Santa idea, in part, because of some convenient research I came across tying this kind of believing to the development of abstract but essential emotions like love and empathy. And once I saw Brennan and Liddy respond with such joy to the idea of Santa, I embraced it. I held back only a little: I never pretended a costumed red crusader was the real deal. I didn’t put out milk and cookies. And when challenged I fell back on vague non-answers like, “If you believe, he’ll come.”
Then, when the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.
I was reading aloud to them from Superfudge when we came to the part where Peter admonishes his parents for letting Fudge continue to believe, and Peter’s mom admits that “sooner or later, he’ll have to learn that Santa is just an idea.” The words came out of my mouth so fast that I didn’t have time to auto-correct, and then I had two stunned kids to answer to. I first stammered out a weak explanation that involved Ms. Blume trying to include families who didn’t celebrate Christmas.
“Or maybe she doesn’t believe in Santa,” I said then, ridiculously. “But I do.”
So I was already wondering if that Christmas would be our last in the I-believe camp when we spent Thanksgiving with my family. Afterward, my sister called me with a confession: “I’m afraid Jake might have told Brennan there’s no Santa,” she said.
“Oh well,” I shrugged it off. “I think we were already headed in that direction.”
And that’s where things stood when I overheard Brennan tell two brothers in the neighborhood, “Guess what? Santa’s not real.” I ordered Brennan into his bedroom, furious: “You might be too old to believe in Santa, Brennan,” I said. “But it’s not fair for you to ruin it for other kids.”
Brennan’s eyes grew wide, then teary. “There’s really no Santa?” he said. “I was just pranking them! I was about to tell them I was only joking.” He looked about as sick as I felt.
I told my sister that Jake hadn’t ruined Santa for Brennan. I had. And I tried to give Brennan the speech I’d read about, where you say now it’s his turn to be his little sister’s Santa. As if there’s fun to be had watching your sister open gifts delivered by flying reindeer as you sit with your pile ordered from Amazon Prime by lame moms and dads.
And then there was the question of Liddy.
She was relentless. “Tell me,” she implored, over and over again. I’d start to say, “If you believe -” and she’d say, “Tell me the truth!”
So eventually I did. And she cried,
“But you asked me to tell you the truth,” I said.
“Well now you ruined it!” she answered, weeping.
We spent that Christmas at my mother’s an eight-hour drive away. I’d sent all gifts ahead of time and my mom and I stayed up late wrapping them and arranging them under her tree. In the morning, when Liddy opened a life-sized golden retriever that would require a seat of its own on the ride home, my husband asked, “Where did that come from?” with a perceptible note of distress.
“I have no idea,” I said, trying to shirk the blame.
Liddy overheard and it was all the encouragement she needed. “I know who it came from,” she said. She hugged what would become one of her all-time favorite Santa gifts and her eyes flashed in a challenge to me, Judy Blume and anyone else trying to dampen her Christmas spirit. “You might not believe. But I still do.”
Photo by Megan Dempsey