As it turns out, they don’t sell golden ink, which was a real a problem for me one Christmas some twenty years ago. Perhaps I had watched The Santa Clause one too many times (whose clever title I only noticed this year, thanks to my wife; it took me an embarrassingly long time to catch the pun in “The Beatles,” too), or perhaps I was just ready to get to the bottom of things, but I needed some proof about Santa. I never seemed to get the Play Station I asked for, which was suspicious, considering my Dad forbade us to have one. Santa never seemed to eat the massive pile of cookies we’d leave him. And most of all, my best friend Rob had spied his present from Santa in his Mom’s closet the previous Christmas–a video game, of course.
I knew there were perfectly rational explanations for all of these events. Santa probably had to negotiate with my parents about which gifts were allowed in the house (my Dad was a lawyer, after all); at the end of the night, Santa did eat about two billion cookies, so he could be forgiven his dietary reticence in this one instance; and everybody knew that Santa may deliver some packages early to parents if it was a particularly busy season for him (he’s only human, after all). But it was enough to pique my curiosity, and it was time for Santa to show himself. So, I was off to find some golden ink with which I would write a letter to Santa, and which he would sign (in gold). As it turns out, golden ink either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist within the 200 yard radius that was my world, so I settled for regular ink. “All the better,” I thought, “His golden signature will stand out even more this way.” I crafted the letter, and after the annual reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, placed it atop the cookies and went to bed.
My parents must have felt sick.
The thing is, I don’t remember when I started believing in Santa, and I wasn’t one of those kids that got all hot and bothered about it at school. I certainly could not point to the hour I first believed–perhaps the seeds of my apostasy–or to a time when I had not thought Santa existed. And it isn’t as though my parents really worked the Santa thing. They didn’t dress up or make a huge deal about correcting us if we thanked them for a gift from Santa, and they’d always laugh when I would ask about the disturbing lyrics to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (I didn’t get the joke until about four years ago). My most vivid Santa memory besides this one is watching Greg Fishel track Santa’s flight on the Doppler 5000, something I’m sure Fishel could never do before taking three bracing shots of bourbon. (“I went to Penn State for this?”). With all due respect to Dallas Raines, Greg Fishel is the best.
The next morning, I was ready for the signature, but could not find it anywhere. Not the signature, but the letter itself. Quickly prioritizing this mystery in the shadow of an insane mountain of toys, I opened presents with gusto. Every Christmas was very much the same, and I mean that in the best way possible. They are warm, safe memories, with Randy Travis Christmas on in the background, my Mom watching with coffee in hand, and my Dad fighting the battle of “wrapping paper mountain,” perhaps throwing a few unlucky cast-offs into the fire. In later years, It’s a Wonderful Life might be on in the background, with Mr. Potter cracking me up for a sixteenth straight year. (“Happy New Year to you–in jail!”)
No matter what, though, there came the inevitable “pause-to-throw-away-the-wrapping-paper.” We would each grab an arm-full, stuff it into the trash can, and carry on. On this particular Christmas, I made sure I was the first one over to the can, and there found my Santa letter, unsigned. Confusion set in, and as so often happens with young boys, confusion led to immediate indignation at the person nearest. “Adam! Daniel! Did you throw away my letter?” They wisely ran for cover. “Mom! Why did you throw my letter away? Santa didn’t get a chance to sign it!” That’s all I really remember. I certainly don’t remember my Mom’s response to this. I was annoyed, and would have to wait another full year to add Santa to my autograph book (thus far consisting of Roberto Alomar, Ryan Klesko, and Eric Montross).
In my mind’s eye, I find myself riding with my Dad a few days later. We are in Chapel Hill and it’s still cold; I think we are going to see a UNC game with friends. In any case, it is a crisp day, with me riding in the front seat of the light blue Accord, and being there alone with my Dad, both rarities at that age. I can’t remember how he broaches the subject, but the message is both sensitively put and clear: there is no Santa.
I am dumbstruck, crestfallen, and devastated all at once. “What about the Easter Bunny?” No. “The Tooth Fairy?” No. “What about…?” No. No, no, no. Tears well in my eyes, but at what I am not sure. I try my best to fight them back, and am as unsure as to why I am holding them back as to why they are coming. The way this news hits me is surprising. I’m not that kid, the one who beats up those who would dare defame the good name of Santa, or who insanely counts down until his next visit like an inmate waiting for parole. But Santa is a part of my mental furniture, as much as cubbies or old Mr. Lowry next door or the Oak tree in the front yard, and in one fell swoop, he is gone.
For young parents who are afraid of “doing Santa” with their kids, they often say it may hurt a child’s trust in things, not least in them as parents. I can’t say that never happens, but it seems unlikely. It certainly wasn’t my experience. It sounds to me like a retroactive excuse for an easy, unthinking kind of “doubt” in later teenage years. (No respectable skeptic I know starts off talking about Santa Claus). At that age, I simply didn’t have the capacity for that kind of reflection.
Then again, it might have been different had I not looked over and noticed something else that had not been a part of my mental furniture up to that point: my Dad looked–sad. Almost like he was holding back tears (but that couldn’t be!). He certainly was concentrating hard on this very familiar road. In my memory (and perhaps only in mine, who knows?) it is a moment shared between us. Especially as I prepare to welcome a child of my own into the world, I think of that moment, and why I remember it, or flashing images from it, so vividly. Was it that Santa was dead (and we had killed him)? Was it that I was growing older? Was it that my Dad had shown (in my perception) the first signs of being a complex human being? (Dad sure was growing up fast!). Mostly, I think, it was this: they understood. They may have been concerned with telling me the emperor had no clothes, but the issue changed when I saw that my Dad seemed pretty upset about the whole thing. Which was more jarring than Santa not existing.
Whatever existential dread the knowledge of this new, slightly-less-enchanted world engendered within me was forgotten a few minutes later under the intoxicating influence of a Big Mac and Coke. “Santa isn’t real,” I declared to my friend, who was eating the last fries with a similarly contented air, much like Grandaddy would enjoy a cigarette after a big meal. “Everybody knows that,” he said while chewing. Apparently this wasn’t earth-shattering news to everyone.
Of the many problems with Santa, one that my mother-in-law pointed out to her kids in later years is that Santa doesn’t really bring gifts; he brings rewards. Santa gives “good” kids a bribe and “bad” ones something to keep their house warm (assuming “bad” kids inevitably will be the same kids that need help with basic necessities?). The rewards are always materialistic, superfluous, “the latest.” “Very expensive,” Mr. Dink might say. It’s a capitalist’s dream, with Santa serving as the first lesson in Adam Smith’s idolatrous philosophy. In my mother-in-law’s terms, it’s about as far from true grace as you can get, and the real Saint Nick would probably have punched our Santa right in the face.
In my own way, that’s what I began to see that day with my Dad, and not for the last time: Santa was a guy who came around once a year and bribed me for my affection. My Dad was the one willing to have these sorts of conversations with me all year round, usually with him in his big tan chair as he peaked out behind a newspaper. My Mom was the one who always listened to what I was actually saying, rather than assuming what I “meant.” Night in and night out, getting tucked in was one part getting ready for bed and three parts interview. My Nana, I remember, would always tell us, “No matter what you do, we’ll always love you.” “Even if I murdered someone?” “Even then. I wouldn’t be happy. I’d be incredibly disappointed. But I’d always love you.” Santa was capricious; Santa was elusive; Santa didn’t give me what I asked for, nor did he stick around to tell me why a third-grader might not need a 10-inch pocket knife. At that age, if it wasn’t Santa, it would have been something else. Something to test and prod and find its limits. Something to explore and doubt and investigate, and see how the world responded to my questions. In a cold front seat, I peaked behind some invisible curtain and saw that my parents were more complex than I had imagined; that they might not be perfect, but that they weren’t going anywhere; and that it was safe to prod at the world.
Santa or no Santa, I can only hope my son will realize the same, as time goes on.