On the second day of January, two weeks before Paula was to turn seven years old, I told her there was no Santa Claus.
“Is there a Santa Claus?” she asked me as she lay in bed during our normal bedtime routine.
“Oh, yes,” I said.
“But is Santa Claus real?” she persisted.
“Saint Nicholas was a real person and Santa Claus is another name for Saint Nicholas. Santa means saint and Claus is short for Nicholas,” I explained.
A few minutes of silence passed. Then she asked again: “Is Santa Claus real?”
“Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas and that is very real,” I said. “But as you know Christmas isn’t really about Santa Claus, it’s about the birth of Jesus.”
Paula sat up and began to cry. I hate it when she does that. Her crying will wake Catherine, asleep in a crib in a room only a few feet away. It will disrupt John, in another room where Susan is trying to get him to go to sleep.
“Paula,” I asked. “Why are you crying?”
“Because you won’t tell me the truth about Santa Claus,” she said.
“I’m telling you the truth,” I protested. “Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas.”
She continued to cry. I couldn’t tell her there’s no Santa Claus. It would be like taking away a little of her childhood. I love the innocence of my little girl. How could I bear to see any of that disappear?
When I was a kid, I never asked my parents if Santa Claus was real. Oh, I knew there was no Santa; I didn’t need my parents to confirm it, although maybe I didn’t know as early as first grade. When I did figure it out, I did what anyone in my family would have done -– I didn’t talk about it.
That blasted Natasha! She’s the first-grade schoolmate who told all the kids in Paula’s class that Santa’s a fake. Paula came home and told us all about it the day it happened. In damage control mode, we told Paula some kids don’t believe, but we knew Santa was real. Susan called Natasha’s mom to inform her of her daughter’s destructive truthfulness.
“Paula, please stop crying,” I pleaded.
“No, not until you tell me the truth,” she said.
“Okay, Paula, you are right. There is no Santa Claus.”
Long, silent pause. I can’t believe I just said it. (Paula blackmailed it out of me.) Paula can’t believe what she just heard.
“Really?” she responded timidly, a smile creeping across her face. She stopped crying and lay back down in bed.
“We put those presents under the tree,” I said.
“And you put the candy in the stockings?” Paula clarified.
“And you eat the cookies and drink the milk we leave out for Santa Claus?”
“I thought I saw cookie crumbs on your lip on Christmas!” she said. “Hey, did you give yourself a present last Christmas and say it was from Santa?”
There was a long silence. Paula continued to wear a smile.
“Daddy,” she said.
“Is the Easter Bunny real?” she asked.
“No, the East Bunny’s not real,” I conceded, the truth unraveling out of my control.
“How about Saint Nicholas?” she asked.
“There was a real Saint Nicholas,” I said.
“Yes, but one who puts the candy in my shoes?” she persisted.
“We do that, mom and me,” I said.
There was another long, silent pause. The interrogation apparently was over.
“Now Paula, you listen to me,” I said, grabbing her chin to turn her face toward mine. “You are not to tell anyone what I just told you. You cannot tell John. You cannot tell Catherine. You cannot tell anyone at school.”
“How about my teacher?” she wanted to know.
“No, don’t talk to her about this,” I said.
“Dad, are you going to tell mom about this?” Paula asked.
“Yes. But Paula, it is very important that you keep this to yourself,” I said. “You can’t spoil it for the kids who believe.”
“I won’t tell anyone, Daddy,” Paula assured.
She didn’t say anything else. Within a few minutes she fell asleep. She looked a lot older to me than she had 15 minutes ago. I told my wife and she sighed.
“She’s growing up,” Susan observed.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
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