A Christmas Chronicle

How I learned the secret of Santa Claus’ annual visit.

Dude, are you for real?

For years, Santa Claus came to our house early each Christmas Eve. It happened after dinner, while my grandparents and uncles were visiting. There were jingling bells in the distance, then they got closer, and then he was outside the door, in his long white beard and red suit and furry hat. He came laughing into the house, enormous and terrifying, stomping snow off his boots.

The first visit I remember—I was almost 4—he asked if I’d been good, if I’d helped my mother around the house. I was paralyzed with fear because I hadn’t been good under that definition, and all the adults watching knew the truth. But how could I say no to Santa? I said yes. He produced an unwrapped toy for me and one for my brother, and told us he would bring the rest after we were asleep.

It was awe-inspiring, but not unbelievable, that Santa would drop in on us before the sleigh really got going for the night. We lived on a steep, unpaved hill, which in December in Montana got icy, and he said he’d left his reindeer at the bottom of it, like some people did with their old cars.

There were more presents from Santa in the morning, but the ones he hand-delivered are the ones I remember most clearly: a clear dome on wheels that you pushed like a vacuum cleaner to make colored balls pop inside like popcorn; a green, jelly-filled monster for my brother, with stretchable arms and legs. If there were heretical whispers at school, they had no effect: We had proof that Santa was real.

Doubt came in stages. One year, I made the mistake of telling the boys down the street that Santa stopped by our house; they howled and said he didn’t exist. Their older sister rushed to tell me that he did, but that it wasn’t the real Santa who came to visit people, it was just a doctor in town. This was shocking news. It sounded specific enough to be true, and I stopped arguing. I didn’t want evidence; I didn’t want to know.

The staging began to seem suspicious the Christmas Eve when I was 7. We went to our uncle’s house for dinner, a few blocks away, and Santa somehow found us there. He looked less towering than usual. After he left, I sat in the next room testing the walkie-talkies he brought, hearing my family’s staticky voices, thinking that finding us at our house was one thing, but following us around was another.

Sometime after that, alone in the kitchen with my mother, I told her I wanted to know the truth. I was old enough to know, maybe embarrassingly old, and she caved. I went to my father next. The oldest of five kids, he’d had early practice keeping the secret and was tougher to crack. He liked Santa, not only because in our house Santa didn’t wrap what he left beneath the tree. But I had leverage in my mother’s confession, and my father gave in.

I had thought I would be triumphant, possessed of the truth. Instead I was desolate. In place of a Santa who could fly all over the world but came to us first, I was left with a kindly local doctor in a car who dressed up for his own patients and had been cajoled by my mother into including us, learning our names, and picking up the two presents my parents had cached outside the door.

We spent Christmas the next year with a younger cousin in Texas. At her house, Santa didn’t appear but called down the chimney on Christmas Eve to talk to her. I watched, newly jaded. She was thrilled and didn’t notice that her father was missing while the deep-voiced man tromped around on the roof. It seemed impossible that she would be fooled. But gradually I began to be moved—by the elaborate nature of the hoax, the care that went into convincing us that the world was magical, generous, and uniquely concerned with our desires.

My brother says that for him, too, the illusion started to crack the year Santa found us at our uncle’s. Colin is two years younger, so he was quicker about learning the truth than I was, maybe because had a more investigative bent about Christmas. (He once sneaked out in the middle of the night and opened a present because he had to know, then rewrapped it with heavy brown shipping tape and left it, as if nothing had happened, under the tree.)

Colin will be a father in a few months, and I asked if he was going to perpetuate the great Santa lie. He laughed and said, “No, we’ll just tell him there’s nothing from the start.”

Of course, the baby will have Santa, in some form. And he’ll believe, as he’ll believe all the unkeepable promises that good parents make. If he takes after Colin, he’ll be impatient from the start with the wait for presents, and later with the logic of omniscience and omnipresence. Facts will come to seem more important than magical gifts. You can’t have both knowledge and Eden, but if he’s lucky, and isn’t cast out early by neighbor kids, he’ll be able to choose knowledge on his own.