My mother remembered the exact moment she learned the facts about Santa Claus. She was the second oldest of six children. One December evening, her mother drew her aside and told her, “There is no Santa Claus. Don’t tell the little ones.”
She was devastated. She had always believed what grown-ups said, and grown-ups had insisted Santa was real.
She determined that she would always tell her children the truth.
So my sister and I never believed in Santa Claus. Some people think this was terrible, that there was no magic in our Christmas. But we enjoyed plenty of magic, perhaps more than our friends who believed (with whom we were instructed never to argue the subject).
While our mother never said Santa was a fact, she taught us to pretend, and that was just as magical.
On Christmas Eve, we left cookies and milk for Santa, and delighted in our cleverness when we said we hoped our father would enjoy them. We listened for reindeer and sleigh bells on the roof, even as we watched, through feigned sleep, while our parents filled the stockings tied to our bedposts. We knew why gift tags were signed “from Santa” in handwriting that looked so much like our mother’s.
Like other children, we counted the days until Christmas, when all delicious mysteries would be revealed. Unlike our believing friends, we knew that secret preparations were being made all around us by people who cherished us.
We had the magic of knowing where gifts really came from. The dolls we adored in the Sears catalog found their way to our Christmas tree because Mom and Dad were paying attention to our innermost desires. Our great-grandmother made the new flannel nightgown we snuggled into each Christmas night. Grandma chose the Parcheesi game. The doll clothes were made by our mother’s friend across the street.
We also had the magic of participating in the gift-giving. When I was nine and my sister was seven, Mom took us shopping at a little local store for gifts we could give to each other. I watched from the car as she and Cheryl walked among the shelves. It seemed like the longest time until Cheryl finally made a selection, Mom placed a mysterious package in the trunk, and it was my turn to shop. I took as long as Cheryl had, wanting to choose something she would really love. On Christmas morning, we discovered that we had chosen the exact same gift for each other.
While Mom never said Santa was fact, she taught is that the Santa Claus spirit is true. Facts are different from truth. You can observe, test, and prove facts. Truth, however, lives in the meaning of things. You can pretend about facts to help you understand the truth.
The truth of the Santa Claus story echoes the truth of the Christmas story itself. Regardless of what the facts are, the truth is, that one day, humankind was blessed with the undeserved gift of the extraordinary individual whose birthday we celebrate. In the same way, people give us gifts not because we’re good, but simply because we are loved. What could be more magical, more mysterious, than that?
Any child can understand and enjoy “we pretend.” And “we pretend” has the advantage of bring both factual and true. No child has to be disillusioned, because no grown-up has to take it back.
For me there’s still magic, and still mystery, in Christmas. Each Christmas Eve, I still listen for prancing reindeer and jingling sleigh bells. And I hear them.