Believing in Santa

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We were heading home from a Christmas party at our church when Tristan, my 8-year-old, asked, “How did you get to be Santa last year?”

 

I didn’t respond for a little while. I felt a pit in my gut, the same feeling I often feel whenever I’ve been caught in a lie. Last year, at the same Christmas party, I was asked to be Santa. It was somewhat of a last minute arrangement. The normally jolly fat man in our congregation pulled a no show, and I was the only one eager for the part. I slid into the costume, stuffed the jacket with pillows to add a little girth, and came out a Ho-Ho-Ho-ing. The only problem was, even with the big white beard, and wig, and hat, Tristan still recognized me. He was 7-years-old and already questing the legitimacy of everything from the Tooth Fairy to Santa. He followed me back to the dressing room, and it was then, after a long attempt to convince him that I was working as Santa’s helper, that I finally admitted that there was no Santa. It was a rough moment for me as a father, honestly. If felt like some part of his childhood faded away, and I became fearful that he’d ruin it for his younger siblings.

 

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I said.

 

“That’s a lie, Dad. Don’t lie. You were Santa last year.”

 

I looked in the rearview mirror. Tristan was in the back seat of the van. It was dark out, so I could only make out the silhouette of his short brown hair and stocky build. But I knew he was giving me a shit-eating smirk, the same one he often gives me when he thinks he has me cornered. In front of him was Norah, his 6-year-old sister, who still believed in Santa. I couldn’t see her all that well, but better than Tristan, and it seemed obvious by the way her eyes were moving side to side that the gears were turning.

 

I was hoping to give Norah at least one, maybe two more years, of believing in Santa, but with Tristan’s big mouth it felt like keeping the lid on a politician.

 

When Tristan discovered that there was no Santa, I enlisted him to be my helper. I told him not to say a word to Norah about the real Santa, his parents. I told him that we needed to keep the dream alive for her, and he needed to help me. I let him help put out the gifts the night before, and he helped us move the elf at night. Although, I should say that the first few times he touched the elf he looked like I’d handed him a hot dagger, not sure if he should be touching it.

 

As we sat in the van, no one speaking, Mel and I giving each other sideways glances, Tristan waiting for an answer, and Norah eagerly waiting too, I wondered why we were trying so hard to keep the Santa thing going. It’s not like it was critical for Christmas to happen. The gifts would come no matter what. I will admit it was nice to hold the idea of Santa watching the kids over their heads when they got out of line during the month of December. But honestly, it was a silly lie. Part of me wanted to let the cat out of the bag.

 

But then, I thought about the magic of it all. I thought about my childhood. I thought about how each Christmas Eve I would wrap myself up in blankets, and listen for boots on the roof. I was afraid to get up in the night because I might ruin it. I might scare Santa off. But at the same time, I wanted to see him. I wanted to sit across the table from the jolly old man and have some cookies and milk. And in the morning, there was something a little extra special about thinking a fat man came in the night and delivered exactly what I wanted.

 

But that all ended when I was 7-years-old when my buddy Joel told me that my parents were really Santa, and I believed him. Christmas was still good after that, but it wasn’t magical anymore. I didn’t feel the wonder that I once did. It basically became about the toys. And honestly, I never got that feeling back again. With my kids, I want them to have that magical feeling as long as possible.

 

We were almost home before I spoke again. I finally admitted to being Santa the year before, I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. Then I told Norah, “Santa called me and asked if I could be his helper. He got caught up making toys and asked me to fill in. He does that sometimes.”

 

We were parked in the garage now, and Tristan started to say, “That’s a lie!” But I gave him The Dad Look. This is the straight-faced, head jerked around, serious, drop what you are doing before I leave you in the woods cold and alone look I’ve developed over the years. All he got out was “That’s…” before he shut his trap.

 

Norah nodded, and I was pretty sure she bought it. Late that night I cornered Tristan in his room. He was changing into his blue and yellow Pokémon pajamas.

 

I leaned down and said, “What was that all about?”

 

“What?” He said.

 

“In the van? Remember last year, when I asked you to be a helper?”

 

He nodded, his eyes a little misty, and suddenly I realized just how domineering I must’ve looked in that moment. Here’s the thing with Tristan. If I slow down and talk to him, crouch down, that sort of thing, he will work with me. He will usually do what I ask. But if I get pissed and tell him how things work, he gets emotional, and then does whatever the hell he wants. The problem is, with raising kids, sometimes it’s hard to slow down and be rational. But in this moment, I thought about Norah, and how badly I wanted her to keep believing in Santa. Then I crouched down, and Tristan looked at me with big blue eyes, not sure what I was planning.

 

“Last year,” I said. “You agreed to help out. You promised to help us keep the Santa secret. Do you remember?”

 

“Yes,” he said.

 

“Good. Because the thing is, believing in Santa is really magical, and I want you to know that. And I want you to help us keep that alive for Norah. I’m not going to punish you, or anything. I just want you to understand how important all this is, and how knowing about Santa is a big responsibility. It comes with moving the elf and putting out presents. And it means playing along with the secret. Can you do that?”

 

Tristan thought for a moment. He scratched his thigh. Then he looked up at me, his chest swelled with responsibility, and said, “Yea. Sorry, Dad. Can I still move the elf?”

 

I smiled. “Yeah,” I said. “You sure can.”

 

 

 

 

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