It’s almost the end of February, and, as is the custom in my house, there are only two or three straggling remnants of Christmas left to put away: The green, plaid dishcloth with snowflakes; holiday doormat; and the silicone ice-cube tray with Christmas tree shaped cutouts. Once they find their way to the basement, the house will finally be completely sanitized of the holiday spirit.
However, in a way, it already happened:
My eight-year-old son sat next to me at the table last night, working on his homework while my husband and I ate our dinner. Our 14-year-old son stood nearby, trying to engage us in a discussion about his inaugural shave that morning. As I tried to eat my salad and NOT think about baby hairs and peach fuzz, my head swung back and forth between the merits of his Gillette-Power-ProGlide-Core-Infusion-Venus-Flytrap razor blade and answering our 8-year-old’s homework questions. Naturally, I felt like I was at a tennis match.
“Oh,” I announced suddenly. “Someone please remind me…I need to send that ping-pong table back.” Had my 12-year-old daughter been there, she’d have popped up from the table and written the reminder on the magnetized memo pad we keep on the fridge for just such spontaneous thoughts. However, she was practicing piano.
The eight-year-old gave me his “why are you such a crazy lady” look. I’m used to that look — especially from my tween daughter — so I just kept right on talking.
“When I took the ping-pong table out of the box, there were pieces flying everywhere. I don’t think they drilled the holes right. That’s probably why it sags in the middle.”
My husband dipped out of the 14-year-old’s follicular analysis and added his own brilliant assessment of the ping-pong table: “Totally cheap,” he said.
Again with the stare from the eight-year-old.
“What?” I said, expecting my youngest child to point out, as he’s prone to do these days, that I’ve interrupted him.
“But..I thought Santa brought the ping-pong table,” he said. Blink. Blink. Sniff.
“Oh,” I said, sitting up straight, realizing I’d blatantly blown my cover. “You’re right. Santa did bring it.”
I attempted my best eye roll (the one that screams “You know me…there I go being an idiot again”), then quickly turned back to the parmesan shavings in my salad. I wanted desperately to turn back time and erase my thoughtless comment and tune back in to the morning’s shaving play-by-play.
“Mom?” the wise, young one said, tugging on my sleeve. “Santa brought the ping-pong table, right?”
Don’t let this moment happen, I thought. I’m not even ready to think about the impending facial stubble on that one, let alone stumble through a come-to-Jesus talk about how I’ve been fabricating the existence of an obese visitor for the last eight years of this one’s life…
“Absolutely, Buddy,” I said, waving my fork with the nonchalance of an heiress. “Santa brought it.” Ugh. He knows.
I tried hard not to think of the perfect Christmas morning we shared just 8 weeks ago. After the five of us opened all the presents in the living room, I’d asked the eight-year-old to run down to the basement for a fresh roll of paper towels, knowing he’d be the first to find the Sharper Image foldable ping-pong table sitting in the middle of the basement, assembled and ready with a huge red bow on top. I tried not to think of how he screamed from the basement, “OH! MY! GOD! You GUYS! SANTA LEFT US A PING-PONG TABLE!!!”
“What?” I yelled from the living room in mock shock.
“There’s a ping-pong table?” the twelve- and fourteen-year-olds shouted, running toward the basement stairs.
“There is not a ping-pong table!” my husband yelled, winking at me and handing me my coffee cup.
“IS TOO!” the eight-year-old yelled. “Santa left a ping-pong table!”
The four of us reached the basement stairwell, cramming our necks down to see the eight-year-old walking slowly around the miniature ping-pong-table. He didn’t even notice the garbage can I’d strategically placed underneath it to keep it standing upright; that “foldable” ping-pong table was a piece of crap from the second I pulled it out of the Sharper Image box.
“This is AWESOME!” my young son yelled.
“Wow, Santa must really think you’ve been a good kid this year,” my husband said.
“Ahem,” I corrected. “My guess is, Santa brought this for all the kids,” I said. The two older ones looked at me with knowing sideways glances, smiling. “Who wants to give it a try?”
“I found it!” the eight-year-old shouted, then immediately realized how that sounded. “I mean, can I be one of the players?”
“You sure can,” I said, taking a paddle. “I’ll serve it to you.”
My son’s sternum was only a paddle’s-width higher than the top of the table, but he stood as tall as he could, ready for the first serve of the first game on the new present from Santa Claus. I bounced the hollow white ball on my end and tapped it lightly toward his side, but it hit the net — which promptly popped out of its flimsy housing and crumpled on the table. After a frustrating minute of rigging the net so it stood back upright, the timer on the oven went off — the Christmas morning casserole was ready. I attempted another serve, and as the ball bounced to the eight-year-old’s side of the table, his swing came from above (rather than the side), nearly crushing the ball flat on the table. His two older siblings gasped in horror (as only older sibs can do with such dramatic flair) at his gross misjudgment of ping-pong form. The eight-year-old shot a death glare at the older two, placed his dimpled hands on the table and pursed his lips together…but as soon as he put his weight on the table, the garbage can shifted and the table began to collapse.
“Breakfast!” my husband announced, heading up the stairs to turn off the timer.
Never mind that after Christmas morning, the ping-pong table was used exactly two times. Never mind that it’s been in its folded-up position next to the furnace for almost two months. Santa brought it, so it’s awesome; its delicate (a.k.a. junky) construction has been respected in all its Santaliciousness.
And now, at the kitchen table, in a moment of careless task-mastery, I’ve blown that Santaliciousness to bits, watching it flutter away like weightless bits of charred paper floating up a chimney.
“Dad?” the eight-year-old quivered at the table next to me last night. As my husband continued listening to the Mach IV revolution that occurred on the teenager’s upper lip that morning, he held up a finger, signaling the universal parenting sign of, “I’ll be with you in just one sec.”
“Dad,” he repeated louder, undeterred in his quest to uncover the truth. “Did you buy the ping-pong table?”
Imagine this slow-motion scene unfold:
I open my mouth to say to my husband, “Don’t answer the question!” just as he turns and says to our younger son, “Nope.”
Oh thank you God.
“Your mom bought it,” he finished. “I think she got it at…Hammacher Schlemmer, right?”
I sit frozen.
“No?” he asks, looking at me quizzically. “Was it Brookstone?” he asks, tilting his head.
I stare, shaking my head left to right, eyes closed and my mouth slightly open as he hammers the nail in deeper. “Oh wait,” he declares. “It was Sharper Image, right?”
Before I can say a word, the eight-year-old is off the stool and out of the room. I hear his little body take a flying leap toward the living room couch, knowing exactly how he buries his face in the cushions when he’s truly upset.
“He’ll be fine,” my husband says, looking slightly nervous. We both knew that was that.
Santa was no longer.
“Oh no,” I said with a heavy sigh.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it? He just figured out Santa’s not real!” I hissed. “We need to go talk to him.” I know I sounded hysterical…because I was.
I’d been through this before with the fourteen-year-old, and it did not go well. He’d learned the truth about Santa when he was 9. Here’s how that went down:
Nine-year-old: Mom, I know Santa’s not real. You don’t have to lie anymore.
Me (wondering how these kids always throw me the curveballs and heavy-duty emotional stuff when I’m alone): What do you mean, Honey?
Him: Don’t lie to me, Mom! I know you’re Santa!
Me: What do you mean? (Who told him? This is my first kid. I’ve never done this before. Did I even know the truth at his age? Should I tell him the truth or maintain the facade? Will he tell his younger siblings? Why doesn’t my husband get stuck with these questions?)
Him: I want the truth. (I check his expression and determine he’s ready for the truth)
Me (once I hear the word truth, I spill my guts): You want to know the truth?
Me: Okay. (Here goes nothing) I think you’re finally old enough now. I still believe in Santa, and so does Dad, but we’re the ones who get all the presents.
Him: I knew it! Get out! You’re a LIAR!! LIAR!! LIAR!!
Me: But… (guess I misinterpreted his expression. He’s definitely not ready)
Him: You’ve been lying to me my whole life! I bet the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are all fake, too!
Me: Well, they’re not technically lies. They’re all about the spirit of —
Him: And the Nap Fairy’s probably fake, too, right?
Me: (I clench my jaw. My mother made up the Nap Fairy as a way to get the grandkids to go down while she watched them. Sounded great at the time. Who knew?) You know, what, honey? Let’s–
Him: GET OUT NOW! You’re such a LIAR!!
So, that’s how it went down with the teenager back in the day. Thank God our daughter’s reaction was different. At 8 years old, as I tucked her into bed, she’d asked me, point-blank, if Santa was real. I braced myself for impact and answered, point-blank, “No, he’s not.” Her reaction was sheer glee.
“I KNEW it!” she’d squealed with giggles, then ran off to write a story about it.
Last night, I walked into the living room and sat down on the couch next to my grieving son. His entire body faced the back of the couch, away from me, from the fireplace — where we’ve always laid out the cookies and the milk and the notes for Santa and the carrots and the water for the reindeer — and from the lies. My husband lingered in the kitchen, wiping down the counter from dinner (not just because I’m horrible at that job, which I am, and not because we’d left a huge mess, which we did not); who could blame him for keeping clear of the emotions in this living room?
This is the moment we’ve never discussed as parents: our youngest child asks if Santa is real…and wants to know if his parents and his siblings are all in on the whole charade. It’s all so heartbreaking. Why did we ever think this was a good idea?
Gently, I nudge his back. He jerks away, shaking off my contagious, dishonest arm.
“I still believe,” I say, meaning it.
He turns toward me with tears on his bright red cheeks, his head slightly sweaty from being buried in the couch cushion. I know he’s ashamed of his anger, ashamed of not figuring it all out sooner, ashamed of being mad at a mother who loves him. I see this confusion in his eyes, especially when he says, “What do you mean, you still believe?”
“I mean, I believe in Santa. I’m 43 years old and I believe in him. When I was your age, and I found out my parents delivered all the gifts…that Santa wasn’t the one who came…I was sad, just like you are. But then I learned it’s okay to still believe in him, even when he’s not here. Because Santa’s here in spirit. That’s the truth.”
I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t turn away from me. Thankfully, he did not.
As my husband takes a seat on the couch, my son says, “So it was always you guys who moved the fireplace screen?” My husband props his feet up on the coffee table and looks to me.
“Yup,” I say, scrunching my nose with guilt. As our son continues to pull at our heartstrings, the Santa myth keeps unraveling, breath by breath.
“So those presents that said, ‘To Nate From Santa’ were really from you guys?” he says. I think I see a tear.
“Yes,” I confess, looking him in the eye. Wait, that’s not a tear. It’s more of a glint. Could he actually be glad to know what’s been going on?
“If you really think about it,” my husband says, “it’d be awfully hard for a fat man to squeeze down this chimney. Just look at it.” He points to the shallow space in the hearth where the coal basket sits. This house has a narrow, coal-burning fireplace, de rigueur when Queen Anne rowhouses like this one were built. “He’d have been stuck for sure, don’t you think?”
Our son pauses in thought. “What about all of our Christmas cookies? And the milk? And the carrots for the reindeer?” He’s definitely not mad; more like something halfway between curious and WTF.
My husband raises his hand, admitting his complicity. “I ate all the cookies,” he says, rubbing his belly. His broad smile is an older version of our son’s, whose smile I’m still hoping to find tonight.
“You ate the carrots, too?” the boy asks us.
“No,” I say, “but we fed them to the rabbit.” I shrug my shoulders, hoping his eight-year-old heart understands we did this all out of love. Monsters don’t feed carrots to rabbits on Christmas Eve, right? He’s got to know that.
I watch my boy as he thinks and, in this moment, I am unsure if more tears — or acceptance — will follow.
Just then, the smooth-lipped teenager strolls into the room. “What’s up, li’l rider?” he says to his little brother.
With a stony-eyed look on his cherubic face, the eight-year-old announces, “I know everything.”
“About what?” the hairless wonder asks.
“About Santa,” poker-face says, pointing to his father and me.
“Oh, Dude. I kind of remember when I found out! I kind of–”
“I remember when you found out,” my daughter says to her older brother, cracking her knuckles as she walks into the living room. “You were sooooo upset!”
“I was?” the teenager asks, looking to me for confirmation. I nod as his sister continues.
“Yes, you were,” she says, arms folded across her chest. She looks at the younger brother — whom she claims to despise — and winks. “He cried so hard!” she says, pointing to the teenager. The younger brother sits up straighter, stealing a sideways glance at the older brother he idolizes.
“You cried really hard?” the young one asks incredulously, covering his mouth with his hands.
“Like a little baby,” the sister reports — as if she’d been there herself (which she most certainly was not). She’s heard me tell the story many times, particularly when she’s been tempted to tell her younger brother the truth about Santa. I’d remind her how devastated her older brother had been, and that it was important not to ruin the magic of Christmas for her younger brother.
The moment has arrived. Each of my children are now aware there is no Santa Claus. The “secret” is out, and I’m shocked at the relief I feel not to carry this non-truth any longer. In fact, I’m shocked my third child still believed in Santa until he was 8, though I suspect he wanted to believe as much as I wanted him to.
It’s in moments like this that I try to find the collective good that comes out of life’s toughest situations. For instance, all three of my kids were gathered in one room, engaged in a non-combative manner. In that moment, they were connected by a common thread (granted, that thread was the “lie” I’d been telling for 14 years running, but still…).
I still believe in the magic, the emotion, and the spirit of the season, and I hope my children will embrace these emotions, as well. And that’s the truth.