The year my older son started kindergarten—our third in Wisconsin—I learned about Saint Nick’s Day. Children set their shoes by the fireplace before going to bed on December 5 and wake the next morning to find their Keds and Converse filled with chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, a small toy or two. A mini-Christmas, weeks before the big day, commemorating Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra. A parent at my son’s school told me that everyone in Wisconsin celebrated Saint Nick’s, even the Hmong children whose families didn’t observe Christmas. If our son missed it, he’d feel left out. We didn’t want that, did we?
We didn’t have a fireplace, so our sons left their shoes beneath the thermostat. The next morning, they bounded downstairs and dived for the loot. They’d each received a pair of flannel pajamas, yo-yos and Matchbox cars, parcels of chocolate coins. Two-year-old Hayden sat on the floor and devoured his entire stash, wrappers and all, until chocolate oozed down his chin. At five, though, Galen was puzzled. He studied the Christmas tree, festooned with ornaments but empty of presents. “Is this Christmas? ” he asked.
“It’s Saint Nick’s Day, ” my wife said.
“Does Saint Nick work for Santa? ” Galen asked. “Or does he work for God? ”
Since becoming a father, I’ve had my misgivings about propagating the Santa Claus mythology. It’s not Santa’s make-believe status that bothers me, but rather how children are so heartily encouraged to believe in him when they’re little, only to have the fable, and all the magical thinking Santa makes possible, later revealed as a fraud.
I remembered the day my own mother came clean that Santa was a fake. I’d had my suspicions for a while (my gifts smelled like her perfume, for example), but the revelation still felt like a betrayal. I’d been duped by my own parents, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. If anything, I’d learned to take for granted how much things cost, as well as the effort required to acquire and assemble them. It was an attitude I’d noticed my sons starting to espouse: If I threatened to take away Hayden’s toys, he’d shrug and say Santa would bring him more. If Galen lost his gloves, his solution was to simply add them to his Christmas lists. In the boys’ minds, Santa was a cash cow who cottoned to their every desire.
This was my chance to set a few things straight.
“Saint Nick was Santa, ” I said. “He was a real person who lived long ago. He protected children and helped the poor. He was so famous that everyone in Europe knew about him and talked about him long after he died. ”
“He died? ” Galen’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “Santa died? ”
“A long time ago, ” I said. “More than a thousand years. We remember him at Christmas because his story reminds us to love others and be generous. ”
Galen stared at the tree, the lights shimmering in the ornaments. He looked suddenly wise, as though he’d grasped some fundamental human truth—about the power of stories, perhaps, the ways fables can tell us something about who we are and how we ought to live. I congratulated myself for making the truth plain. I hadn’t said Santa wasn’t real; on the contrary, Santa was as real as he and I, subject to the same cycles of life and death. Galen seemed to take comfort in this knowledge. He handed me one of his chocolate coins. Bursting with yuletide spirit, I unwrapped it for him.
The next week, his teacher called. “We had some trouble today, ” she said. “We were making holiday ornaments when Galen announced to the class that Santa was dead. ”
“He said that? ”
“Several children cried, ” she said. “I’ve had a few parents call. Christmas is less than two weeks away. ”
“It’s my fault, ” I said, trying to laugh it off. “I was telling him how Saint Nicholas was the real Santa Claus. ”
“Well, some beliefs are better kept to ourselves. ” Her tone was unmistakable: Rumors of Santa’s demise, sprung upon a room of five-year-olds in mid-December, needed to be dispelled, pronto.
I found Galen in the living room, watching Go, Diego, Go! I sat down and waited for the right opportunity to broach the subject. The show, however, ran without commercial breaks, and the longer I sat mutely beside him, the less I knew what to say. Hey, kid, remember that conversation we had last week? Turns out I was wrong: There really is a fat guy in a velveteen suit who can slow time and squeeze through air ducts. His reindeer can fly, his toys are made by elves, and your Christmas presents don’t cost anything. It sounded not only stupid but cowardly, a bald-faced repeal of the first consequential truth I’d ever told him.
Parents already tell so many lies in the course of holding things together: that we can protect them from harm or that we’ll always have enough to eat, even though harm and hunger daily befall children around the world. There were times I deceived my sons not to guard their innocence but for my own convenience, because I wanted them to go to bed or stop hounding me at the store. How often is Santa invoked in order to get kids to settle down? Now that I’d let the genie out of the bottle, I didn’t know how to get it back in.
I never did find a way to tell Galen that Santa wasn’t dead. Thankfully, peer pressure did the work for me. Without further intervention from his parents or his teacher, Galen decided to hedge his bets and declare Santa alive again. A few days before school let out, he brought me his Christmas list, scrawled in marker on yellow construction paper, and asked me to burn it. A friend had told him Santa would read the smoke. Christmas lists sent by smoke signal were faster and more reliable than using the mail. “You’re sure Santa will get it? ” I asked.
"Of course," he said. “He sees everything. ”
I carried the paper to the kitchen sink and dug around the drawer for the lighter. Before I touched the flame to the page, I looked down at my son, hoping to gauge his seriousness. I wanted to whisper: It’s too bad the other booger eaters in your class can’t handle the truth. But as I watched Galen study the paper as it blackened, I understood why he wanted to believe. Believing in Santa is ultimately an act of community, during a season when community is paramount. Hoping we’ve made the “nice” list helps reassure children that they’re worthy, despite their failings and misbehaviors, of the love, goodwill, and yes, even the presents that come their way during the holidays. It’s not Santa’s magic that children cling to and need, but his grace.
I opened the window above the sink. The smoke from Galen’s charred list snaked up the wall and disappeared into the icy air.
On Christmas Eve, while my wife finished the dishes, I ushered the boys upstairs to bed. They kicked their feet inside their sheets and squealed. My wife and I would be up until after midnight assembling toys for the grand reveal the next morning. “Santa can’t come until you’re asleep, ” I said. “Stay in bed. ”
Galen drew an X on his chest. “I promise. ”
I leaned down to kiss him. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Dad.” I backed out of his room, shut off the light. As I pulled the door shut, I heard him say, “I mean…Santa.” AND then I heard him giggling in the dark.
David McGlynn’s most recent book is the memoir A Door in the Ocean. He lives with his family in Wisconsin.