On Nov. 29, exactly 26 days before Christmas, a Chicago TV news anchor and a second-grade teacher in New York revealed the truth behind one of society’s most pervasive lies. The anchor broadcast the painful facts on the 9 o’clock news; the teacher broke the news to her students during a geography lesson. The anchor was deluged with irate responses and apologized for her “callous” act on-air the following evening. The teacher’s words caused “a blizzard of outrage” at George W. Miller Elementary School, where her actions are now being “addressed internally.”
What, exactly, was the appalling crime of these two women? They both denied the existence of Santa Claus. Now, they’re paying for it.
I feel their pain.
I was 8 the first—and only—time I spoiled Santa for a believer. My parents had come clean about the Santa myth to me a year or two earlier because I was offended that the jolly geezer didn’t care about me, a Christmas carol-singing Jew from the northern Chicago suburbs. Why did he only leap down the chimneys of my Christian friends? What had I done to deserve this prejudicial treatment? My parents finally cracked, and I was relieved. My friends weren’t more special than me after all!
I knew, of course, that most kids my age were not privy to this knowledge. Possessing the secret made me feel deliciously superior. I understood the cruel, complicated world a little better than my third-grade buddies. Unfortunately, my newfound sophistication didn’t enhance my secret-keeping abilities.
During one December art class, groups gathered around long, paint-splattered tables, coloring with broken crayons and chewed markers. I had somehow snagged a spot at a table with the popular third-grade girls. One of them, Jacqueline, was decorating a letter she’d written to Santa Claus.
Why was she wasting her time with correspondence for an imaginary man when she could be drawing something productive, like a half-person, half-dragon? (I loved drawing those.) Should I tell her what I knew so she could begin a more meaningful art project? Suddenly, it seemed silly to conceal this bit of wisdom. Spilling the secret would be a public service, I imagined. In fact, sharing the information might make me cooler—like the kids who learned the meanings of swear words before everyone else.
“You know there is no Santa Claus, right?”
Instantly, my cheeks burned as I realized I had committed a grievous wrong. So great was my shame that it’s blocked out any memory of how, exactly, Jacqueline reacted. All I recall is wishing I could dissolve into metallic goo and seep away through a hole in the ground, a la Alex Mack. I shouldn’t have told her!
I’ve felt guilty about it ever since. Each year, around Christmas, I recall the events of that afternoon and wonder: Did my gaffe kill part of her hopeful, glittering soul? Does she think of me each year by the Christmas tree, her eggnog made bitter by the memory of the day I took an ax to her childish sense of awe and wonder? How often did kids spoil Santa for their classmates?
For the first questions, I turned to Facebook. I sent Jacqueline a message, then waited anxiously for her reply. For the last one, I called my old elementary school teachers.
My second-grade teacher, Robin Bell, put the episode into perspective. “I think maybe you’ve exaggerated it in your mind,” she offered. She’s watched kids hear the truth before, but it has “never destroyed anyone.” Just a few days ago, during a geography lesson on why magnets work, a kid announced that the North Pole is where Santa lives. Another student spat back, “There is no Santa!”
“I was like, ‘Well, that’s what some people think, but there could be a Santa! You never know!’ ” Bell recalled. The child, she said, looked quizzical. Not distraught. The Santa reveal, she said, is less of a problem these days, “because kids are more savvy and sophisticated. They aren’t quite as protected. I think there is less belief in things like that.”
Not so, said my fourth-grade teacher, JoAnn Tennenbaum. Kids still believe. The 30-year teaching veteran has taught many classes split along Santa-belief party lines. To avoid the tension, she sidesteps the subject. But certain topics are Santa minefields. One year, while discussing a charity project, which involved purchasing Christmas presents for poor families, one student asked a logical question: Why did he need to buy gifts for the poor kids? Wouldn’t Santa take care of that? Tennenbaum was stunned. The poor children don’t have mom and dad presents to supplement Santa’s, she sputtered. And Santa could only bring those kids one or two gifts.
But even the occasional verbal slip-up does little to erode a kid’s ironclad belief. When kids argue about the old man’s existence, zealots tend to distrust the deniers, Tennenbaum says. It’s tougher than you’d think to shake the faith.
So maybe there was hope that I hadn’t destroyed Jacqueline’s childhood. When I saw her reply in my inbox a couple days later, I clicked anxiously. “To be honest,” she wrote, “I have zero recollection of that happening.” A different girl, Carolyn, broke the devastating news, she said. “But maybe it was me who you told and I just blocked it out? Maybe … I just didn’t believe you?”
She didn’t believe me? All those years of guilt for nothing? But apparently, while my Santa denial was merely hearsay, Carolyn had visual evidence to back up her claim. She’d gone to the bathroom in the middle of the night and seen her parents setting up gifts. “She told me in a sort of ‘oh no, I didn’t mean to see but I did …’ kind of way. We were both so horrified!”
Discovering the truth about Santa doesn’t destroy a childhood—it just propels kids forward on the path to adulthood. Jacqueline got over the loss of her fantasy gift-giver. “I don’t ever remember it being super traumatic or scarring,” she told me. “I definitely remember feeling older and wiser now that I knew Santa wasn’t real.”
It seems like it’s the parents who really have a tough time. They’re the ones who wrote in to the Chicago news anchor, the ones who demanded the New York elementary school take action. Even my mother, well after admitting the truth about Santa, kept the Tooth Fairy alive as long as she could (until I woke to find her slipping a silver dollar under my pillow). “It was one of the last vestiges of your childhood,” she told me.
Maybe the person I should’ve apologized to was Jacqueline’s mom.