Discovering the Santa Truth

Santa Came!” by Kevin Dooley/ CC BY 2.0/Edited from original

I will always remember the year that I figured out there was no Santa. I was still pretty young, mid-elementary school age. I was in the basement of our house and opened a closet door, revealing an array of Toys ‘R Us boxes. I shut the door as fast as I could, but I’d already blown it. That Christmas morning, those very toys were set out and very clearly “from Santa.”

My parents were (and still are) notorious for their over-the-top Christmases. Even when they didn’t have much money, they somehow managed to make our Christmas so extravagant. The “Santa” presents on Christmas morning were distinguished: they weren’t wrapped, and they were set up and displayed like in a store. The presents were so jaw-dropping, and the displays looked so perfect. Maybe that’s why my siblings and I all believed in Santa so deeply for so long. Even when I saw the presents from the closet set out on Christmas morning, I had to wonder — my mom and dad pulled this off? These guys?

I went through stages of “grief” when I found out that Santa wasn’t real. First, I went into denial. I was sure that there was an explanation; Santa had left the presents at our house early. I had dreamed up the day I discovered the presents. Then, I was heartbroken. I had really been a fan of this guy. I’d behaved well for him, written him letters, bashfully talked to him at the mall. Next, I became angry — angry at my parents for lying, and somehow angry at Santa for not existing. After all, I’d defended him when older boys on the bus had tried to tell us he was fake. And after the anger came acceptance. I told myself that it was going to be okay. Christmas was always great and always would be. An avid reader from a young age, I adopted a sacred mantra for fiction: even though it isn’t true, it’s still a good story that I can learn from. Santa was a good story. I could live with that. Narnia wasn’t real; I knew that, and it didn’t change how much I loved and daydreamed about it…

Since I had 4 younger siblings — the youngest being eight years younger than me — I had to pretend to believe in Santa for a very long time. Pretending to believe in something is about 50% weird and 50% fun. I was suddenly on par with my parents — acting surprised when my siblings got their gifts, leaving out cookies, secretly beaming with vicarious wonder. It was important to me to not let my siblings know the big secret. My parents figured out pretty soon that I knew “the truth,” and then I became privy to my siblings’ gifts, even accompanying my parents sometimes to the store to buy their “Santa gifts.” That felt really cool.

The weird part was faking it — acting surprised and carrying on the lie. Sometimes faking it made me believe in Santa again. Sometimes it made me feel superior, and other times it made me feel isolated. I longed for at least one of my brothers or sisters to figure it out soon so I could debrief with them: “Can you believe it? I know! This whole time! It was a hoax!”

Santa is fascinating to me now as an adult. I can’t help but analyze the existential implications of this common cultural practice. Adults took a legendary saint and then created a timeless, likable, but powerful figure in order to get kids to behave for at least part of the year. Of course, it’s mostly harmless and done in the spirit of holiday celebration, but it’s worth comparing to larger scales, like religion.

Author Donald Miller gives a funny childhood anecdote in one of his books in which he encounters Santa in the mall restroom, only half-disguised, taking a leak next to him. Though he was initially upset when his Santa illusion was shattered — “The loss of Santa was, at the time, the most dramatic loss of my young life” — he also recounts, “…it didn’t take me long to get over it, if you want to know the truth…having met Santa in the men’s restroom, I can’t say it troubled me to find out he was an imposter, that basically people just go around dressing up like Santa in order to fool the naïve and make a little extra Christmas money.”

For most, Santa is an easy belief to let go, even after all the stock they put into him. The same can’t always be said for things like religion or political views. If you stop believing in Santa, it’s normal, part of growing up. If you move away from your family’s religion or politics, you risk ostracism and painfully awkward dinner table conversations. And, if you’re going through those things this holiday season, just know that you are not alone!

Finally, I’ll say this much…

As a mid-twenties, college-educated, married, non-religious person, I can take one big lesson from what I’ll call “The Santa Truth”:

I am so amazed by and thankful for my parents. They put a lot of effort into getting us great presents and leaving cool Santa letters for us. And they let some nonexistent, old bearded man take all the credit! They loved us, and they wanted us to enjoy ourselves. It was never about lying to us. I obviously have no hard feelings toward them, and I still see nothing psychologically damaging about them letting us grow our imaginations. I may not believe in Santa anymore, but I do believe in what Christmas represents: hope, family, love, and peace. (Maybe that makes me more naïve than kiddos who still believe in Santa, but I’ll take it.)

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