The Santa conversation went nothing like I expected.
We had a pretty unbelievable run. By which I mean we seriously couldn’t believe we still had a believer on our hands. A middle school-aged believer. We watched and listened for any hint of awareness, our wide eyes meeting over her head season after season as she resolutely wrote letters, mused about chimney logistics and followed Santa’s trajectory on the Santa tracker app.
Her friends had gotten wise years earlier. The first one figured it out in third grade and confronted her mom, who couldn’t lie to her face when questioned. In fourth grade, another friend caught on. I hoped my girl wouldn’t learn the truth from them, not so soon, but knew it was gossip too delicious to remain under wraps for long. Her fifth grade year, I stopped counting how many kids knew. In sixth grade, we wondered if she was for real. She was riding the bus with high schoolers, God knows what she heard on that commute! But she seemed all in, and she doesn’t exactly have a poker face.
She’s in seventh grade this year. Last week we folded laundry and chatted about the holidays, and she mentioned a couple of items for her wish list. Then she grinned and, eyes twinkling, said, “Thanks, Santa.” My mind responded along the lines of Ohdeargodit’stimefortheSantatalkbutwaitaminuteshedidn’taskaquestionandshedoesn’tevenseemupsetwtf?!?!?
I stared at her, momentarily frozen. She continued to smile broadly. A mom instinct kicked in and I secured the perimeter by making sure the 8-year-old was out of earshot.
“What?” she asked. “You didn’t think I would stay innocent forever, did you?”
“Keep your voice down,” I whispered. “When did you find out?”
“Last year in English class, Mrs. M told us to pick anyone in the world to write about and Adam picked Santa and Mrs. M said ‘no, pick someone real.’ So I started thinking about it then.”
“That was the first time you heard anything or suspected anything?”
“Yeah!” she was cheerful, calm and conspiratorial. She really didn’t need anything from me.
First of all, holy shit, Mrs. M! You just tattooed yourself onto our family fabric forever. Second, holy shit, elementary and middle school kids, you guys didn’t spill the beans for YEARS? Well done! Third, holy shit, this is supposed to be a rather big talk and I am flustered and unprepared and I don’t think I said any of the right stuff yet. The sex talk had gone way better than this. So did the drug talk, for God’s sake.
But our roles were oddly reversed, as she reassured me that essentially it was all good, “belief” could mean whatever she wanted it to mean, she knew we hadn’t lied. No pissed-off, ripped-off, heartbroken dreams-lay-dying drama. I was tongue-tied as she talked me through it. The freakout I had anticipated was coming from me.
Somehow I found out the truth about Santa when I was seven. But I played along for my five-year-old brother and for my mom and dad too, feeling like an actress. My mom was acting too, as it turned out; that was the last year we had Christmas all together. My mom left my dad for Marcie, and took us with her. My dad was heartbroken, and his alcohol intake attested to that (happily for him he got sober through AA when I was in 6th grade and remains so today).
After the divorce, our Christmases lacked a sense of tradition, to say the least. Different cities, houses, relatives, friends and new faces every year. My brother and I were often in a spare room or in sleeping bags on someone’s floor on Christmas morning – could be my grandpa’s house, could be my mom’s friend’s house where we were crashing for awhile. The year I was in fifth grade, mom was out late on Christmas Eve, causing her to sleep so late on Christmas morning that my brother and I opened our presents by ourselves because we couldn’t wait, then carefully wrapped them back up. She got up at 11:30 a.m. and didn’t notice the re-taping.
There were years with no Christmas too, after my dad got remarried to a Jehovah’s Witness and renounced holidays. To be a kid who knows Christmas and then is told there’s no Christmas for you anymore because of your new stepmom’s religion sucked every bit as much as you can imagine.
I became a hunter of the holiday of my fantasies, tagging along, showing up and inviting myself to friends’ and then boyfriends’ family celebrations as often as I could make it happen. Gratitude mixed with envy at others’ tables; I wanted to be them.
Now, we are them.
And nothing feels diminished this year with Anna knowing the truth. She’s been deputized – we have a helper! As we pull out beloved decorations and menu-plan, crank holiday tunes and marvel over Jingles the elf’s new perch every morning, we’re weaving the knowing twinkle in her eye right into the celebration. I can’t take all the credit. But the fact that we got her so far through her childhood before the curtain lifted feels like the crowning achievement of my life so far.