I was the type of kid who lingered in stairwells trying to overhear adult conversation and who sneaked downstairs to catch my babysitter making out with her boyfriend. As a six-year-old, I blew Santa’s cover after noticing that “his” handwriting on gift labels was just like my dad’s. My mother was aghast to learn I’d told her friend’s daughter (one year my senior) that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. When my mother confronted me, I looked her in the eye and said, “Well, you lied to me!”
When my oldest child, Rory, was a toddler, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell him about Santa. “You wouldn’t rob him of that!” my mother scolded. Rob him of what, I thought, but I knew she meant the wonder of it all, the belief that a magical, benevolent being would grant your wishes. In the end I caved and told Rory the big merry lie; he ate it up like so much gingerbread.
My childhood self scoffed at the idea of flying reindeer, but my son gloried in the magic of beasts that could fly without wings. As a girl I’d noted that even if Santa were to come down our chimney, it was blocked by a woodstove; Rory didn’t care that we had no chimney and said Santa would probably come in through the heating vents. I was charmed by his imaginative openness and fed into it, even as I felt a twinge of guilt about lying to my kid. “It’s not lying,” my mother insisted. “It’s about including him in the story.”
Picture books played a big part in perpetuating the Santa myth in Rory’s life, and we soon amassed a broad library of stories to indulge his fascination. After just a few listens, he flawlessly imitated the British accent of the readers of our audiobook version of Bruce Whatley’s The Night Before Christmas, and he was baffled by the ending of The Polar Express. “Why can’t his sister hear the bell anymore?” he demanded. “She stopped believing in Santa Claus,” I told him, “but the boy kept believing.” “Me too,” said Rory emphatically. “I will always believe.”
Rory made good on this promise well into elementary school. He doggedly resisted peer pressure until one autumnal night. “Mom-Mom, is Santa real or do you and Mama put the presents under the tree?” It was the moment I’d dreaded. “Why do you ask?” I dodged carefully. “The other kids say I’m a loser for believing still. Just tell me the truth. I can handle it.” I took a deep breath. “OK, Rory, Mama and I do put the presents under the tree, but Santa — ” “All of them?” he interrupted and burst into tears. No, not tears — heaving, racking sobs. I tried to channel some inner “yes, Virginia” muse and explained that it’s the spirit of Santa that we hold onto, the joy of giving, the celebration of childhood…but Rory would have none of it. He whispered, “It’s like I know the words to the song, but the tune has slipped away.” A knife to the heart, I tell you! But then he said, “We can’t tell Emilia. She still believes.”
Yes, two-year-old Emilia did believe in Santa, since we had to include her in the story that her brother had loved so well. However, she did not adore Santa; she was terrified of him. Just a month or so earlier, Emilia’s toddlerhood fascination with babies had led to an attendant love of trains when I read her New Baby Train, Marla Frazee’s picture book version of the Woody Guthrie song. She firmly associated babies and trains from then on, doggedly looking for infants in any book about a little engine; this included The Polar Express. Seeing no babies, Emilia fixated on the jolly old elf — and was struck with horror.
It took me a while to figure out why Emilia was suddenly refusing to go to bed. Finally, after much prompting, she explained, “If I go to sleep Santa will come and Santa is scary!” Emilia had no sense of the passage of time, so telling her that “in a few weeks” Santa would come to her house meant that he could come any minute. She was, after all, the same child who was frightened by masks, clowns, and the potato mascot who ran around our town fair each fall lauding the benefits of fruits and vegetables. It made perfect sense that she would be terrified at the prospect of a big, bearded man prowling around while everyone was asleep. I told her that Santa would leave presents in the garage that year and staged a phone call to the North Pole to tell him not to enter our house.
When, in the space of one year, baby Caroline (now five), Natayja (now thirteen), and Stevie (now six) joined our family, we half-heartedly went along perpetuating the myth, with the thought that if Natayja and Stevie had any belief in Santa, it wouldn’t be fair to say, “Guess what? In our family he doesn’t exist. Happy adoption day!” And, just a few days after Natayja, nearly eight, came home to our family, I curled up on the couch with her to read Christmas books. “Which one do you want me to read?” I asked. “That one,” she said, pointing to Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrated edition of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. I wasn’t sure she’d have the attention span for the long text, but I started reading, “One Christmas was so much like another…” and we read the book straight through. This longer story allowed Natayja the uninterrupted time she needed to let her body sink into closeness with mine. Just as the mistletoe hanging in our dining room gave her an excuse to open herself up to kisses, shared reading of this book afforded her the time and space to cuddle. It didn’t matter how much she understood of the metaphor-rich language, or that Thomas’s Christmas memories were completely different from her own, or that in her experience of moving from family to family, one Christmas was so unlike another. What mattered was the sound of my voice reading to her, the images before her eyes as she pointed to them and said: “Look. It’s snowing,” or “Firefighters,” or “What’s that?”
When we reached the end she asked, “Can we read another one?” It was the first time she’d asked me for anything. We read for more than two hours on that couch, moving from eccentric aunts and candy cigarettes to a train traveling to the North Pole, and yes, to flying reindeer and good old Santa Claus. She delighted in these stories and later in visiting Santa at a local park, where she shyly told him what she wanted him to bring for her and her brothers and sisters and her two new moms.
I’m not sure when or how Natayja discovered that Santa is a story rather than a real person. She’s an ideal big sister, protective and kind, and she has played along every year for the benefit of her younger siblings. Stevie still believes in Santa Claus, but he can’t hold a Christmas candle to Caroline’s devotion, which seems to have surpassed even Rory’s belief. Caroline wants to read Christmas books all year long, and I indulge her in this, particularly in her favorite one, another Marla Frazee title, Santa Claus: The World’s Number One Toy Expert. “I just love his little underwears!” she says mischievously every time we read it and she beholds Santa romping around in his crazy Frazee boxers. But it’s not just Santa’s fashion sense that appeals to her, it’s his power. She regards St. Nick with what seems like an emphasis on his sainthood and worships him, perhaps filling some spiritual void born of growing up in our non-churchgoing household. Once, when she was being bossed around by her siblings, I said, “Ignore them. They’re not in charge of the world.” Without missing a beat she responded, “You’re right. Santa is.”
It seems that Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Rudolph form Caroline’s personal holy trinity as surely as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost formed mine when I was a devout Catholic girl who said her rosary every night, praying to be as good as Mary and delighting in taking part in my church’s Christmas pageant. If I allow my lapsed Catholic self to surface, I can admit to a personal preference for nativity stories over Santa ones, in part because they tie me to a heritage of faith that in other ways has slipped away from me. I grew up on Tomie dePaola’s pop-up book The First Christmas, and it, along with Margaret Wise Brown and Floyd Cooper’s A Child Is Born, are favorites in my family’s library today. The nativity book we turn to most often, however, is Julie Vivas’s The Nativity. Vivas’s art makes the text — straight from the King James Bible — accessible and wondrously human for her audience. She said of working on this book, “I’ve been pregnant. I couldn’t do a pretty Christmas book.”
Amen to that! Vivas’s pictures of a very pregnant Mary mounting and then riding on a donkey drive this point home with great humor and a subtle feminist panache. Reading this book when Rory was three, in preparation for attending Christmas Eve services with my mother, called for a certain amount of explanation of the text. Vivas’s angels wear work boots and have tattered, tie-dyed wings, and Mary, during the scene when the Archangel Gabriel comes to tell her that she will bear God’s child, is hanging the wash out on the line, oblivious to his descent. On the next spread Mary and Gabriel are seated at her kitchen table having their important conversation. The expression on Mary’s face is one of pure incredulity as she takes in the angel’s words: “Fear not Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. Thou shalt bring forth a son and call his name Jesus.” I paraphrased for Rory, “So here the angel is telling Mary that she is going to have a baby and Mary is really, really surprised about this news. Look at her — she’s like ‘Are you kidding!?’”
Rory loved this book. We read it dozens of times and brought it to the church so he could follow along with the lector. All was well until the “Fear not Mary” line resonated throughout the quiet sanctuary. Rory, taking this as his cue, called out in full voice, “And Mary was like, ARE YOU KIDDING?!” I gasped. But my mother whispered, “Oh Megan, don’t worry. Kids are what Christmas is all about,” and gave Rory a kiss on the top of his head.
When I think about the story of a long-awaited child born as a symbol of hope, my mother’s sentiment is something I want to celebrate in every season, but perhaps especially at Christmastime with all of its seemingly unavoidable family baggage and chaos. The holiday books I’ve shared with my kids hold more than just stories. They hold the memories of shared time together, and the conversations they’ve provoked have seen us navigating the emotions that come with being a family comprising people with different dispositions, hopes, and fears. I still question whether I made the right decision in telling my kids about Santa, and I am dreading the day Caroline confronts me about why the Polar Express hasn’t stopped at our house, or in some other way catches me in the big jolly lie. But I have reason to hope that she’ll come through it all OK based on how Rory’s feelings have evolved over time:
When Rory was twelve, he stayed up after his siblings went to bed to help stuff stockings and wrap presents. He was delighted by his new role and announced, “It’s even more fun to be Santa than to believe in him.” I looked at my son and recalled the night he wept over losing his belief in Santa Claus. Maybe he couldn’t hear a bell from the Polar Express, but it seemed that the tune that had slipped away from him was back. Joy to the world, indeed.