I remember the exact moment I stopped believing in Santa. I was in an after school program: a vacant classroom where kids of every age and stage were thrown together. As I sat carefully plotting out a masterpiece of tissue paper and white glue, a couple of kids approached me with all of the wisdom and callousness their ten years allowed.
“Do you believe in Santa?”
“Ha! She believes in Santa! What a baby! Santa isn’t real!”
Having unleashed their cruelty, the Santa-deniers moved on to destroy holiday magic for another child, or to pick the bowls of canned fruit salad with the most cherries. I was ruffled, but my faith in Santa was intact. These kids were just kids, I reasoned. What did they know? I would ask the person who knew everything: my dad.
My father picked me up that day. As we walked to the car, I looked up at him and asked. His reply came quickly and with confidence: “No, Santa isn’t real. Neither is the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. Don’t tell your sister.”
This was the moment that I stopped believing in Santa: not only in the large elf himself, but also in the perpetuation of the Santa myth. What was the point, I wondered, of stringing kids along in an elaborate lie? The disappointment wasn’t worth it, I was sure. By the time we made it home, I had made up my mind: if I ever became a parent, my kids would know right away that Santa wasn’t real.
Over the years, this decision was reaffirmed a few times: Santa gifted my sister a box of K’nex she had previously found in my mother’s closet, ruining Christmas for everybody; I saw a few creepy looking Santas working the mall circuit; I had a part-time job at a Jewish community center and saw how hard it was to keep the handful of Santa-believing kids in a state of ignorant bliss.
In 2013, as we wrapped the box of newborn-sized diapers that we were gifting Bingo for Christmas, Sea and I discussed whether Santa would be visiting on December 25th. “Why don’t you want her to believe in Santa?”, Sea asked. “Santa is exciting, and magical!” I argued that Santa was a twinkly-eyed fraud. That if you didn’t believe in Santa, you couldn’t be disappointed by him. Expectation begets disappointment, and so forth. We ended the argument in a stalemate and left the gift tags off all the presents that year. We muddled through the next Christmas in the same way, not explaining exactly who had filled the stocking with care. As we cleaned up the wrapping paper, I knew that the Santa-related ambivalence would soon have to come to an end.
This year, as the Halloween hype ended and Christmas appeared on store shelves, it was time to settle the Santa issue once and for all. At the same time, something unexpected happened: I began to change my mind.
It started a few weeks ago with an unconvincing Santa, probably an obliging neighbor, at our local winter fair. Maybe it was just the twinkling lights or the richness of his faux-velvet suit, but Bingo stared in undisguised wonder. Without even realizing what I was doing, I bent down to her level. “Do you see Santa? He’s visiting from the North Pole. And on Christmas he’ll come to our house and bring you presents!” She began to wave at her new friend. What had I done, I wondered, what had I done?
Here’s the thing: I had assumed that when I became a parent, I would be the one deciding whether magic existed. I didn’t know that children are born with an innate sense of wonder and belief. I only really and truly began to understand this when I started paying attention. To Bingo, so much is magical: bubbles, airplanes, swings. I watch her talk to her stuffed animals, and know that they’re talking back to her. When I see this delight, how can I do anything but cultivate it? When I see a new opportunity for wonder, how can I do anything but bring it to life? It isn’t up to me to decide whether Bingo will believe in Santa, she already does. Sure, it might have something to do with growing up in a consumer culture, but mostly it’s because she knows magic. If I tell her that Santa doesn’t exist, I won’t be telling her the truth or sparing her from future disappointment, I’ll be destroying something that’s already real.
So, on December 1st, we went all in. An Advent Calendar appeared in our kitchen, the elf showed up on the shelf. We borrowed a few festive books from the library, and began to plan trips to assorted winter wonderlands. Now, as we go down the street, we greet every Santa mannequin with the warmth usually reserved for old friends. I can feel my past, Scrooge-like self observing this Christmas cheer with cynicism, but that isn’t stopping me. I want my home to be a place where magic exists, where wonder is celebrated, and where the door* is always open to Santa.
*We don’t have a chimney.