NOTE/SPOILER/WARNING: Today’s post deals with Santa Claus and his existence. If this would be a “sensitive” subject for your family, it might be good to restrict which family members should read it. Thanks for reading this ridiculous disclaimer.
The image I had of Santa Claus as a kid likely came from the same source yours did: the annual Coca-Cola ads in magazines, showing Santa (we were on a first-name basis even then) making his rounds and stopping for a moment to not only eat cookies, but also to drink a bottle of Coke.
It wasn’t so much knowing that Santa drank Coke (which was pretty cool), but more to know what he looked like. It was to see his red suit, the black boots, the enormous belt that went around his enormous belly (you couldn’t call it a stomach or a tummy; it couldn’t be anything but a belly), the white beard, the twinkly eyes, the rosy cheeks.
It was Santa. A kid, seeing those remarkable ads, couldn’t help but think that Santa was real and that everything you’d heard about him was true. He knew who you were and he had your name on the “nice” list (you couldn’t imagine him putting anyone on the “naughty” list).
That image of Santa was so real, your mind blocked out incongruities. You were willing to ignore the fact that the department store Santa didn’t look very much like the Coca-Cola Santa, or that the “Ho-ho-ho” of one Santa didn’t sound very much like that of another. You paid no attention to seeing more than one Santa in the same shopping center, just minutes apart from each other.
Suspending reality is what Santa Claus is all about and kids do that better than anyone. Kids have always known that growing up is something to be avoided. One look at a grown-up tells you that. There’s very little make-believe going on there, way too little joy, way too much seriousness.
Of all the Santas I met in person, my favorite was the one at the place where my dad worked. My dad worked for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., at the big PG&E materials facility on South Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo.
It wasn’t a place I got to visit very often, but every year when I was a kid, all the employees’ kids were invited to come to a Christmas party and get a gift from Santa.
This Santa was very close to the one in the Coca-Cola ads, but he had a kind of Jackie Gleason humor about him. The big PG&E boss would welcome everyone and he would soon (but not soon enough for all us kids) introduce the man of the hour.
Santa would enter to a frenzy of screams and applause. He would stand next to the big boss as the frenzy would die down and the two of them would just awkwardly look at each other, the big boss smiling and looking proud of himself, but Santa peering impatiently, while holding a big sack of toys.
Finally, Santa would say, in a Gleason-like roar, “Where do I SIT?”
Everyone would laugh as the big boss embarrassedly scrambled to find Santa a chair. The idea that Santa could be funny — and have a bit of a temper was endearing to me. The joke was repeated every year and every year I laughed as though I had heard it for the first time.
I don’t remember how old I was when I realized Santa wasn’t real, but it was difficult. (Even typing “Santa wasn’t real” was difficult for me just now.)
Usually at Christmastime, my grandparents would drive up from Los Angeles to visit us. But one year we drove down to visit them instead. I don’t remember why we switched, but it led to me finding out the truth about Santa.
I had started having creeping suspicions. Classmates at school would belittle people who still believed in Santa, so it was smart just to remain quiet about the subject, rather than to open myself up to cruelty.
The tradition at our house back then was that we exchanged presents for each other on Christmas Eve and that gifts from Santa appeared on Christmas morning.
Visiting my grandparents’ house made for some cramped sleeping arrangements. My parents and I had to sleep in the living room, with them in a foldout sofa bed and me on the floor. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but this was Christmas Eve, never a night for sound sleep.
I dozed off for a while, but at some point I became aware of rustling in the living room. It was completely dark, but I started hearing whispering along the lines of “Do you think he’s asleep?”
My first thought was to answer and say, “No, not yet,” but I didn’t. They got up and started moving around and I could hear more rustling, this time in the direction of the Christmas tree.
It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. My mom and dad were Santa! They were putting the gifts from him in their place thinking I was asleep! What’s more is that they had always done that.
It had all been a lie. The very foundation of my childhood was being broken to bits, right there in the living room of that tiny house on Division Street in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I bounce up and shout, “What are you doing?” Should I accuse them of flat-out lying to their only child? Should I call the police? Child and Family Services?
I didn’t do any of that. I very intensely tried to fake sleep. I wanted to cry, but didn’t dare. I didn’t want to let on that I knew what they were doing. It was kind of like discovering your parents are burglars or something. You didn’t want to launch an intervention against them.
I felt resentment, but not toward my parents. I didn’t blame them. It wasn’t their fault. They were parents and this was something they had to do. It was in the job description.
So I just lay there, my innocence slowly going down the drain.
“Why? Why does the world do that?” I thought. Why do grown-ups come up with this wonderful image of a chubby and plump, right jolly old elf, the best friend a kid could ever have, only to know that idea must eventually be torn to shreds?
That night it was my turn to pretend, to deceive. After this enormous surprise that had been turned to overwhelming sadness, I pretended to be asleep.
Of course, I don’t remember at all what Santa brought that year. At some point I told my parents I didn’t believe in Santa anymore. It was kind of like giving them permission to stop sneaking around on Christmas Eve. I’m not sure I ever told them I had been awake that night.
As parents ourselves, my wife and I downplayed Santa and talked more to our kids about the birth of Jesus, which is what Christmas is all about in the first place. But there’s still a nostalgic feeling I get when I look at the Coca-Cola Santa ads. There’s still a little bit of a kid in me and the smile and wink Santa gives me tells me that’s all right.