I will never forget the day I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real.
It was early December, 1984. I was eight-years-old.
For as long as I could remember, Santa had been a huge part of my Christmas experience. I’d go so far as to say that Santa had been my Christmas experience. Every year we’d write our letters to Santa, Mum would post them off, and then we’d wait. On Christmas Eve, we’d get the house set up for him.
We’d move all the presents from Mum and Dad to one side of the tree, hang our stockings, put out a glass of milk and some cookies for him, and don’t forget to leave a carrot for Rudolph! We’d write him a note:
Thank you for coming to our house and bringing us presents. We hope you like the milk and cookies. The carrot is for Rudolph. Have a Merry Christmas.
We love you so much.
Then we’d go to bed and go to sleep. Straight to sleep. Because if we were late to bed, Santa might have to wait for us to fall asleep before he could come in and leave the presents, and then he’d be late to the next house, and then someone might miss out.
Christmas morning would find us awake at 4:00am — with strict instructions not to wake Mum and Dad until 6:00am — and sneaking out to the lounge room. There, piled under the tree, would be piles of presents from Santa. All of them neatly labelled.
To: Jo From: Santa xxx
The handwriting was clearly Santa’s. It didn’t look anything like Mum or Dad’s handwriting. The milk and cookies would be gone, and only the top of the carrot would be left on the plate, with teeth marks from Rudolph! Oh, how I longed to be able to keep that carrot top forever.
But I didn’t have to. The note! Santa had written back to us, in his unfamiliar handwriting:
Thank you for the milk and cookies. Rudolph really liked his carrot. I hope you enjoy your presents. Remember to be good girls and boys next year. Merry Christmas! xxx
Then we’d unpack our Christmas Stockings (filled by Santa) and play with the toys inside until we could wake Mum and Dad up to show them. And boy, weren’t they surprised! Every year, Santa managed to surprise us and them with the number of toys and chocolates he could fit in our stockings. And that was before we even started on the presents under the tree!
Santa was kind of a big deal.
And that year, the year I was eight, promised to be even better. We were living in the U.S. for the first year. We had snow outside (for the first time), an open fireplace for Santa to come down (for the first time), and a bigger tree than I had ever seen before.
But on that day in early December, everything changed.
The subject of Santa Claus came up at school. “Santa isn’t real,” one of the boys said. “It’s just your parents.”
“Is not,” I said, full of righteous indignation. “He’s real. He lives at the North Pole, and–“
One of the girls laughed at me. “You’re so stupid. It’s just grown-ups wearing a costume. That’s why there’s so many Santas in shops.”
“No, they’re Santa’s Helpers,” I said confidently. My parents had explained that phenomenon to me several years earlier. “Santa can’t be everywhere at once, so he hires Helpers to sit in the shops and make lists.”
More kids laughed. I found myself in a ring of children, all of them adamant that Santa wasn’t real. I was about to have another “first time”. I was about to get into a fight. Because I knew Santa was real. I knew it with absolute conviction. My parents would never lie to me.
I’d caught them out on a lie only the December before. Leading up to my Mum’s birthday, she’d said she was turning 21. I wrote “Happy 21st Birthday” on her card, and wished her a happy 21st birthday on the day. And then I was talking about it with a friend at school when I realised the truth: She can’t possibly be 21. If I’m 7, and she’s just turned 21, she would have been 13 when I was born. And that’s obviously impossible.
I confronted her when I got home from school that day.
“I’m not really 21,” she said. “I’m 27. But sometimes it’s nice to pretend to be a different age.”
We’d talked, and she’d apologised for confusing me, and I’d realised that I liked to pretend to be 10, and so I understood. But she’d promised not to “pretend” like that again.
So there was no possible way that she’d lie to me again so soon. Honesty was the most important thing in our household. We (the kids) got in more trouble for lying than any other “crime”. Broke something? Not a problem. Just don’t lie about it. Accidentally dropped your brother and broke his wrist? Not a problem. Just don’t lie about it.
And that’s why my eight-year-old self was willing to get into a fist fight to back up the fact that Santa was real. I knew in my heart that my parents wouldn’t lie to me about something so important.
Fortunately, a teacher broke us up before things got too far. I say “fortunately”, because it was me against about 25 kids by that point. I would have been road-kill. But as I sat on the bus (alone, shunned by my classmates for believing in Santa Claus), their words reverberated in my head. “You’re so stupid. It’s just grown-ups wearing a costume.”
When I got home, I told Mum I needed to talk to her. “The kids at school said Santa isn’t real,” I said, tears in my eyes. “But he is real. Isn’t he?”
She didn’t answer straight away, just took my hand and led me into another room, well away from the ears of my younger siblings.
That didn’t bode well.
“Is Santa Claus real?” I asked. My heart was in my mouth. So much rested on the answer to that question.
Slowly, gently, my mother shook her head. “No,” she said. “But it’s nice to pretend that he is.”
“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t say anything else. My heart was breaking.
“Don’t tell your brother or sister, okay?”
I nodded, and my mother led me back out of the room, and went back to what she’d been doing. I went to my room and cried.
Not because Santa wasn’t real. I didn’t really care where the presents came from or who ate the cookies. The answer to both of those was obvious once the deception had been revealed. I cried because my parents had lied to me. I cried because they’d betrayed the trust I put in them. If they were going to lie about something so important, and go to such an effort to convince me that their lie was the truth (the carrot, the note, the disguised handwriting), how could I trust anything they told me? How could I trust them when they told me that being Honest was the Most Important Thing?
How could I face my classmates the following day, knowing that they’d been right? I had been stupid.
I’d been stupid to believe that my parents would never lie to me.
And there, sitting in my cupboard (where else would a child go to cry in secret?) with tears running down my face, I made a promise to myself. I swore that one day, when I was grown up and I had children, I would never betray them like this. I would never lie to them year after year after year, while simultaneously enforcing the value of Truth and Honesty. I would never go to such lengths to lie to them.
Nothing was ever the same after that. I felt a distance from my parents. (A distance that has only closed in the last handful of years.) I still enjoyed Christmas — still woke up at 4:00am, excited about the magic of the day. But every Christmas reminded me anew of the deception that had been practiced on me and my siblings.
As time went past, I forgot about that promise. Until I had my own children.
I don’t believe in lying to my children. About anything. Sometimes that’s hard when it comes to Santa Claus. And the choice of how to introduce Santa to our kids caused some tension between my husband and I before we came up with a compromise. But I will not lie to my children, nor perpetuate a lie that is told by thousands of parents worldwide.
In our family, Santa is a cross between a story and an imaginary friend. We can talk about him, tell stories about him, and accept that other people treat Santa as though he’s real. But we don’t tell our children that Santa brings presents, or that he makes the decision about how “good” or “bad” you’ve been. We, their parents, are responsible for both those things.
Maybe in years to come, our sons will look back on this time and feel like they missed out on part of the “Magic of Christmas” because we didn’t tell them a magical man in a red suit broke into our house every year and decided how many presents they should get.
Or maybe they’ll appreciate the fact that we never felt it necessary to lie to them. Perhaps they’ll appreciate the real magic of Christmas: families and friends enjoying each other’s company and exchanging gifts in recognition of the love they share.
What do you think of the fat man in the red suit?