You Can Handle The Truth

This was the Christmas. Even last Christmas, Dante was starting to have his suspicions about the Santa Claus thing. When we were shopping for Halloween costume ingredients this year, some of the stores already had Christmas items up, including images of Santa. That led us to this conversation:

DANTE: I don’t think there’s any such thing as Santa.
ME: Oh really?
DANTE: Yeah, I think it’s just something you and Mama write on presents to be funny.
ME: How would you feel if that turned out to be true?
DANTE: Fine. [“Obviously.”]

I dropped the subject. From the beginning, I was surprised to find out how ambivalent I felt about participating in the Santa story as a parent. I love the fantasy and magic of it, but I have been pretty big on always trying to tell Dante the truth in whatever conversation we’re having, or at least some version of the truth that I think he can digest. So it felt strange to give myself license to fabricate in this one area. Consequently, I usually ended up playing it pretty coy. When the topic of Santa would come up, I’d usually say something along the lines of, “Well, I’m not really sure. How do you think it works?” So I was feeling some measure of relief at watching the belief unravel, while at the same time feeling some sadness and loss as well. Like I said: ambivalent.

This year, as Christmas approached, Dante had been announcing at various times that he did not believe in Santa. Then, on Christmas Eve, while I was off doing something else, Laura produced a little gift she had for him. It was a “mood necklace” in the shape of a Christmas tree — one of those deals that changes color depending on the temperature of the skin it’s touching. The packaging read “Naughty Or Nice? Mood Necklace.” When she gave it to Dante, he looked back at her, panic-stricken.

LAURA: Are you okay? What’s wrong, honey?
DANTE: Will you please ask Daddy that if he stays up late, and if Santa is real, to tell him that I’ve been nice?
LAURA: Oh honey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean this to worry you. There’s no question in anybody’s mind that you’ve been a very good boy. You are a very good boy.

I came into the room a few minutes later, and Laura related this story. I found it so poignant — the last vestiges of belief rocketing outward, alongside the sweet idea that at some late hour, night-owl Daddy might get a chance to check in with Santa. So I said to Dante, “Hey, let’s have a conversation about Santa.” Here’s how it went:

ME: What are your thoughts about Santa?
DANTE: My thoughts are that I definitely don’t believe in him, and I think it’s just something you and Grandma write on presents.
ME: What about the stockings?
DANTE: I think that you guys fill the stockings after I go to bed.
ME: And how do you feel about that?
DANTE: Fine.
ME: Okay. [Deep breath.] Well, I am here to tell you that you’re right. Mama and I write “Santa” on some gifts for fun, and we fill the stockings after you go to bed.
DANTE: Okay!
ME: So now I have some questions for you.
DANTE: Okay.
ME: Is it okay with you if we still write “Santa” on some of the gifts?
DANTE: Sure!
ME: And what about putting extra surprise presents out after you go to bed? And filling the stockings? Do you still want us to do that?
DANTE: [Looking at me very seriously] YES. Those two parts are the most important.
ME: Good, because I feel the same way. I love to do that too, and I’d be sad to stop. So let’s have that be our arrangement now — we all know how it really works, but we still get to pretend and have fun on Christmas morning.
DANTE: Yeah, that’s what I really do want.

So there we have it. There were still a couple of loose ends to pick up, though. One was that we needed to let him know that some kids his age still believe in Santa, and we feel it’s important to let them have that as long as they wanted it, because some kids experience a lot of sadness and disappointment when they find out that Santa isn’t real. So we entreated him not to spoil the fun for anybody else.

The second piece was that, perhaps just for my own sake, I wanted to explain why we’d engaged in this nutty deception. So I explained that for a while kids are too young to understand the real giving spirit of Christmas, so we tell them a story in which that spirit gets embodied by a metaphor, but now we feel he’s old enough to understand the spirit itself without the story to prop it up. So, I explained, we all get to feel like Santa sometimes at Christmas, and when he gives a gift to someone at Christmas, he can feel like Santa too.

“Well,” he said, “I still don’t really feel like Santa.” Why not? “Because I don’t have a sleigh, and I don’t come down chimneys, and I don’t have reindeer, and besides, reindeer can’t fly, and there’s no such thing as reindeer.”

Heh. So after explaining that in fact reindeer are real, though granted, they can’t really fly, I tried to explain that the trappings of the story are just there for fun, but that the core of it is about giving. Not sure how much of that he took in, though. That may need to wait until next year.

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