When is the right time to tell children the truth about Santa Claus?
For my own children, the telling was provoked by a question from a daughter—an innocent question that elicited a guilty, if untimely, confession from a parent whose own enthusiasm for the whole charade had been on the wane.
We had played the charade all the five years we had lived in the United States, where Santa somehow is a relevant character, and continued playing it for the four years we had been back home.
For one thing, back home we no longer had the attic we had in Houston, Texas, a facility crucial for a forward-looking, economics-conscious Santa like me; it stored toys bought in post-Christmas sales and provided me a secret place in which to wrap them, and wrap them in my own time—over a whole year, in fact. Without such facility, I was harassed and bound to get sloppy.
A week after Christmas, my eldest child and only daughter, Gia, just turned nine, with my secret little notebook in her hand, came asking, “Mommy, what is this?” It was a record of Santa’s list of wishes to grant across the years. I felt accused and was only relieved to confess.
“Well, now you know.”
“Know what?” She looked confused.
“That I’m Santa.”
I’ll never forget the look in her face as she accused, “Mommy-y-y-y!”
“Don’t tell your brothers!” I called to her as she walked away, betrayed.
Once ready to talk again, Gia said her first impulse was precisely to ruin things for her three brothers, too. She had simply wondered why I had been making a record of “Santa’s gifts” (labeled precisely so) all through the years.
Anyway, our relationship changed. Gia became an accomplice and seemed to relish that sort of adult role, even referring to her brothers now as “the children.” It was she herself who enlightened the two older boys—in good time. Thus the conspiracy grew, with the youngest, Tex, at age four, three years younger than the brother before him, left to still grow into the truth about Santa.
Timing, in this case, is crucial, as a friend and co-teacher of Gia’s herself has also found out. In fact, she feared her miscalculation of the readiness of her first-graders would cost her her job.
After the Christmas break, she thought it a perfectly timed lesson for her class of boys and girls aged six and seven to write thank-you letters to their gift-givers. She expected letters addressed to grandmas, moms and dads, uncles and aunts, and godparents, but found one common addressee: Santa Claus.
“No, no, I want you to write to a real person,” she quickly clarified and just as quickly realized she had upset the children. Anyway, children and parents soon enough forgave her ill-timed disclosure, her presumptuousness.
This year, of my five grandchildren, only five-year-old Mona remains a believer. Her dad peeked into her sealed letter to Santa and found out she wished for a dress. And me—I was happily back playing the old charade, a wiser player now. No truth is more heartbreaking for any child than an untimely revelation of the truth about Santa.
I wonder why we get them started in the first place. My husband, who grew up untouched by such fantasies, naturally didn’t pass it on to his own children. But, not so, with his grandchildren, it seems; their parents do still warn them about being not naughty but nice, or no gifts from Santa, although I’m not so sure Mavis, the precocious four-year-old, is not only playing them.
I wasn’t much into Santa myself, but my children having grown up in the States, I had also grown to love all aspects of the season, and most especially the idea of Santa Claus, the ubiquitous myth. Santa Claus may well be the most meaningful Christian tradition among children, overshadowing the Nativity itself. He offers a simple deal: Be good for goodness’ sake. But of course, a reward always helps.
Children indeed need coaxing into doing what they’re supposed to do, and nobody does it better than Santa. Keeping his myth alive certainly does them no harm, but finding out about him, at anytime, is a rude awakening. Sometimes I wish I had dealt with my nine-year-old Gia the way Truman Capote’s cousin Sook, a 60-something spinster, did with him, as he tells it in an autobiographical short story.
It is Sook who puts Truman to bed every night in Alabama with stories of snow and Santa Claus at Christmas. After spending his first Christmas with his estranged father, Truman, seven, tells her about his own first heartbreak. His father has told him there’s “no such being as Santa Claus,” which should have been easy enough for him to believe, having in fact spied him arranging presents under the tree.
But, in a romantically philosophical way, Sook insists, “Of course, there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do, so the Lord has spread the task for all of us. That’s why everybody is Santa Claus. I am Santa Claus. You are Santa Claus…”
Still, there’s no sparing children the truth forever, and God help you if it’s you who has to break their little hearts.