Santa Purgatory

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...
English: Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. The popularity of that image prompted him to create another illustration in 1881. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learned the ghastly truth about Santa Claus in the first grade. I’m pretty sure I even remember which one of my female classmates told me, clearly intending it to be an emotional earthquake. I say that with confidence because even through the haze of thirty-three years’ distance, I remember feeling a need to play it cool because she was trying to get a rise out of me.

I was taken aback, but it did not crush me, because I was already well aware that other girls had much bigger Christmases than I did, and it made perfect sense to me to think that the difference in our parents’ incomes, and not the whim of some big guy in a red coat, was what made that difference.

Christian found out in the fourth grade, and it ruined Christmas for at least a year.

Alex is in the third grade. He’s asking probing questions about the nature of Jesus, and reality and fiction have been completely separated for over two years, except in this area. I’ve been punting all Santa questions to my husband in that time, because Christian was the one who thought we ought to let it continue. I am tremendously ambivalent about this whole Santa thing. “Christian,” I said this fall, “it crushed you because you believed too long. He’s starting to act like a tween. This is ridiculous. We need to get out ahead of it.”

“All right, I’ll have a conversation with him,” he said…but he’s been procrastinating waiting for Alex to bring it up for six weeks.

So last week, Alex asked at the top of his lungs, “IS RUDOLPH REAL?”

I looked pointedly at my husband, who sighed and sent me upstairs with the three little ones so he and Alex could have The Conversation. I tried to keep an ear out, but since I was also trying to make sure the noise level upstairs covered the revelation being imparted downstairs, I missed most of it. The gist of it was that he tried to let Alex down easy, using this book The Autobiography of Santa Claus, which does, I must say, a lovely job of covering every base. At the end, Santa talks about how kids realize even he can’t give gifts to every person in the world, so at some point they decide to give up their Santa gifts so someone else can have them.

“That doesn’t sound like you really told him,” I said dubiously, when we talked it over later.

“We talked about it,” he said. “We’ve started the process.”

I sighed and let it go, because maybe he’s right that slow and incremental is the middle ground between holding onto the magic and being crushed because it lasted too long.

Yesterday evening, though, we were watching Santa Claus is Coming To Town with the kids, and Alex, who is deep into the Autobiography, looked at Nicholas knowingly and said, “Just so you know, this isn’t really how it happened.”

“Uh…” I said, caught between the child who’s supposed to know and the one we’re trying to preserve the magic for, “Nobody really knows…”

Santa knows,” Alex said. “And I’m reading his autobiography. That’s what an autobiography is. Right?”

Speechless, I looked at my husband, who looked at me helplessly. I said to him said softly, “I don’t think that conversation ‘took’.”

He shrugged. “What can I say? I tried.”

Good grief. I’m in Santa Purgatory. Come on, some mouthy third grader, can’t you put me out of my misery?

(We’re going to see Santa tonight. I swear if the “is he the real one” conversation comes up, I’m just going to tell him already.)