Losing Santa Claus

“You’re having a panic attack, Mom,” she says in response to my strange mixture of laughter and tears. My fourteen year-old daughter is also laughing, nervously, wondering if I’ve come undone and, if so, if it’s all her fault. She’s just sat me down and asked, “Is there really no such thing as Santa?”

A cacophony of contrasting emotions are leaking out of me.

My daughter is a dreamer, a magic-lover, a make-believer. When we tell her it’s time to do homework she’s apt to put on a dress and heels, apply some make-up, grab a briefcase and her homework and go off to “the office.” Chore time sees her dressed as a maid, sadly bemoaning her fate as an unloved, orphaned servant. In Eliza’s world, everything is better in costume and makeup. So it’s not surprising that she believed in Santa Claus longer than most.

Eliza’s love of magic doesn’t spring from nowhere. It’s something we share as a family and though her enthusiasm may be unique, we’ve fostered it along the way. Especially at Christmas: buying special Santa wrapping paper and hiding it away so no one wonders why Santa has the same wrapping paper as we do; making sure there are only crumbs and carrot tops left of the treats put out for Santa and his reindeer. When we lived in a snowy climate, we manufactured boot and hoof prints on the balcony. When Santa writes the kids’ names on presents or jots down a quick “Thank you” on the notes the girls’ leave for him, it’s always in carefully disguised handwriting.

All of this magic-making is one of the joys for me of having children. Who doesn’t love to make their children so easily happy? A few crumbs on a plate, a candy bar wrapped in special paper. Once, when we were visiting California, three-year-old Eliza piped up from the back seat where she was deep in thought, “Remember Santa Claus?” she said? It was summer and Christmas must have seemed a million years away to her at that age, but the name of the town we were in — Santa Cruz — had jogged a memory.

“Yes,” I said. “I remember Santa Claus.

“I like that guy,” she said, her voice wistful and dreamy, lost in the happy memories.

But as Eliza’s world grew larger and included lots of people who didn’t do Santa, I tensed for the fissures that would form in this family fiction of ours. As it turned out, though, Eliza’s belief was more powerful than these contradictions. She possesses an uncanny ability to make sense of the non sensible. “Mom,” she once said. “Santa doesn’t visit Caitlin’s house because Caitlin’s family doesn’t believe in Santa and he doesn’t want to interfere with her family’s beliefs.”

As she got older fewer of her friends believed, but Eliza held on. She may have started teetering around fourth or fifth grade but then something amazing happened: She saw him. I don’t know the details because she’s never described them to me, but I imagine it. She pulls herself out of a dozy half-sleep and looks out her second floor bedroom window to see the unmistakeable red velvet coat of that most beloved fat man. Because the strength of her belief I imagine this sight wasn’t even surprising, though certainly delightful. “There he is,” I imagine her thinking, “Coming to fill our house with Christmas presents.”

Because she saw the man with her own two eyes, I suppose it was easy to hold faith in the face of the crumbling convictions of her friends and acquaintances. What did they know? They hadn’t seen him like she had.

The year she turned twelve and started middle school I was sure we’d had our last Christmas with Santa. But I was wrong. We were going to Costa Rica that year and she pondered as we were packing, “Do you think Santa will find us?” We’d already spent many Christmases traveling and I’d grown adept at smuggling the smallest gifts I could find into the folds of my suitcase. So, it was surprising she had this concern, but it was even more surprising that her belief was still firmly in tact.

I truly loved Eliza’s persistent belief in Santa. At a time when there were lots of other ways she was leaving behind innocence and the easy joys of childhood, this oasis of green and red, tinsel covered magic felt like a gift. I did wonder and worry, though. Did she talk about it amongst her friends? Did these tweens, so eager to be older in their crop tops and skinny jeans (which, in most every way she was right there with) gape astonished at her childish ideas?

When thirteen rolled around she told me that she no longer believed everything about Santa, for instance, she didn’t believe that reindeers could actually fly. (Because that’s the part of the Santa story that’s far-fetched, I thought.) Aside from flying reindeers her convictions remained on solid ground. At this point I stopped being concerned about what her friends might say and ruminated on a deeper fear: When she finally learned the truth, would she hate us for all these years of deceit? To believe something so long in the face of all sorts of evidence to the contrary takes real commitment. I dreaded how she would feel to learn that she’d misplaced her faith, that it was all a big ruse and her own parents had orchestrated it.

Thus my reaction when she came in and asked that straight up question: “Is there really no Santa?” Her eighth-grade math teacher had mentioned how in earlier grades they aren’t allowed to talk about there being no Santa because “some of those sixth graders still believe.” I don’t know why the math teacher’s words, versions of which Eliza has undoubtedly heard time and again, hit home this time. Probably simply because at fourteen the constraints of the concrete had finally crowded out the possibility of this fantasy. She recently starred in a play, “Peter and the Starcatcher” and one of my favorite lines comes from the villain, Black Stache, who says to the young Peter Pan, “Pity the child who lives in a fact-based world.” So here are my tears: giving up this fantasy, grudgingly agreeing that, yes, we are living in a fact-based world.

Yet my tears are also relief. She doesn’t hate me. She isn’t devastated. Instead, as my imaginative girl always does, she finds a way to make sense of this reorientation. “Santa is the Christmas spirit,” she says. “I still believe in that.”