When I still taught English and Creative Writing, I had a favorite Holiday assignment. I would write on the board with characteristically loopy letters: "Tell me about the time you found out that there was no Santa Claus."
Those stories fascinated me. To be sure, I have no such story myself. I never believed in Santa. That there was a St. Nicholas I was certain. The story was in my father's Lives of the Saints, or some such document. I also found out that my patron saints were Saints Philomena and Calixtus, notable for their dying buried alive together in a destroyed church early in the AD's. Faith I had, belief I had, but not in Santa. I had two older brothers and they flatly refused to countenance any Santa-belief in their house.
Doggedly, and under pressure from believers among my peers, I tried to create logical explanations for Santa. Every one was shot down as ridiculous and little-sisterish by the brothers. Even my brilliant suggestion that Santa was the head of a huge toy company that supplied all the toy stores from which mom and dad would buy our presents was hooted out of the kitchen. Later I found out that my brother Alex had been frightened nearly out of his big-boy pants by a larger-than-life Santa who visited the house with a few toys for him. He had probably formed the noble intention in his young mind that his little siblings would never have to endure that fear, that betrayal by an adored figure of faith.
Having never believed, my wonder at Christmas was focused on the magic trick mom and dad performed overnight. I would go to sleep, sometimes in the very room where the tree stood, and the next morning the place transformed into ChristmasLand, where toys were arranged in attractive piles and breakfast was cocoa and sweet Christmas stollen. Christmas, then, is still as wonderful for me as it ever was.
Those who used to believe tell me that Christmas just isn't the same for them. Some of the magic is gone, and the presents aren't as good when you know that elves in a far northern land didn't make them. Then when you find out it was probably children in a far southern land laboring sixteen hours a day to make them... but that's another loss of innocence.
Lovingly, then, I collected those stories. It might be a deeply rooted desire to have those people join me in a reality where family members get you things they think you might like, which should create all kinds of happiness. Maybe I just want the people who used to tell me "You're not getting ANY toys, then, because you don't believe" to say, "Yeah, you were right." Anyway, I have found that the discovery stories break down into three categories. Generally, there are The Clever Detectives, The Sneaky and Surprised, and The Traumatized.
The Clever Detectives
Santa isn't real. If you didn't know that before, you know it now. Salao. This means that parents who want to create the illusion of there being a jolly old man in a red suit who leaves presents in the living room must leave false evidence of there having been a jolly old man in a red suit in the house. This means forging letters, and leaving cookie crumbs on plates, and generally creating a long, elaborate lie. Now, any devotee of CSI: Anywhere knows that somewhere along the line, the evidence will tell the truth. Some children find out this way.
One kid told me that he got a note from Santa on a present. Then he got sick, and had to stay home from school after vacation was over. The note he took to the teacher had the same handwriting, even used the same color pen, as the note from Santa. Busted, Mom, by suspicious documents.
Another man, and this was someone I dated once, told me that this really great present, an Atari Game System, came with a game that didn't work. Huh. He suggested that the family call Santa and get a new game that day, but then his mother said they'd take the game to a store and get a new one. He became very suspicious when mom had the store receipts from something that had supposedly been handcrafted by elves in the North Pole. If they made the game, mom, how did you end up with the receipts? Mom cracked and spilled the whole story.
One girl I taught had parents who just weren't very good liars. Her mother would dress up as Santa and allow herself to be seen crawling through the window with a huge bag. Clever, mom, clever. Santa has to be a man, right? And if dad's right there, it couldn't be him. So... but this girl wasn't fooled. "Mom, that's totally you. Cut it out. Let's just open presents," she would say. Until she was ten, her parents kept up the charade.
The mistake people make with children is assuming that since they don't know several facts about the world, children must not be very bright and therefore, easily fooled. Not so. Children haven't had the time to acquire all the information, but they have mechanisms in their minds that should not be underestimated. The mission of every child is to find out what is so and not so. Never trifle with their power to pursue that mission.
The Sneaky and Surprised
It must be that mission to find out the truth about the world that leads some children to peek. Many of the students I taught got very curious about Santa's process. These were the ones that had to see for themselves, and so they crept down the stairs most mousy quiet, only to discover that the presents were not placed by the Man in the Red Suit, but by The Dad in the Bathrobe.
One student described just such an incident. "I wasn't too upset," he said, "but I know I was very surprised."
I taught several students who hailed from not-very-nice neighborhoods in Newark, New Jersey. One of these boys told me "Well, I thought Santa was going to have a very hard time getting in since we didn't have a chimney, so I unlocked the apartment door. My parents wanted to know just what the hell I thought I was doing, and I realized that they were putting out presents. When I told them about Santa not being able to get in, I also asked them whether they were the ones who got the gifts. I was told never to unlock the door at night again."
Maybe, deep down, these children knew something was up. Surprise is a strong emotion, but not a life-ruining one. Ok, so mom and dad get the presents. At least there are still presents. The food is still good and the children are still loved, and nothing more has happened but a little loss of faith. These are the lucky ones.
Not every child is so lucky. For some, the discovery that Santa has all been a big lie is accompanied by some horror, and the incident usually ends in screams and tears.
One girl I taught had been very naughty. She had a bad report card, and her mother had to sign it. My girl forged her mother's signature, but what with her being seven years old, she'd done it poorly, and got caught. When Mom found out about the whole thing, she hissed "There is no Santa Claus." My poor student dissolved in tears and had a lot of trouble trusting things adults said without proof from then on.
I had another student whose family contrived a huge act around Santa. He became suspicious when he was not allowed to go into the basement, where he usually played when the adults were talking. "I'm going into the basement!" he insisted, and broke free from the restraining hands. Halfway down the steps, he saw his grandfather standing in the middle of the basement. A portly old man, he wore nothing but underwear and a half drunken grin as he struggled to don his Santa Suit. My student began to scream. He can't see a Mall Santa to this day without picturing worn out boxers and sock garters.
Newark seems to be a difficult place to be a child. One extended family of two of my students, cousins born and raised in Ironbound, had gotten rather tired of pretending that Santa would be coming. So the family decided to play a little joke. They adorned a wall with ketchup and, I believe, red clam sauce, and when the children came down the next day, all excited to see presents, they saw a scene of gore and were told "We're sorry, your uncle shot Santa." The children were quite relieved when they learned later that Santa wasn't real. A big lie was preferable to an uncle who might do twenty years for Man 2.
All this makes one wonder, What Good Can Come of The Big Lie? Eventually, the truth must be told. No one can expect to be a contributing member of society who still believes that come Christmas Morning, someone has magically appeared and left presents for all the good boys and girls of the world. For one thing, wouldn't a man so steeped in generosity leave presents equally valuable for the children of the poor and the children of the rich? Then too, wouldn't such a man ignore differences of religion and leave gifts for children who didn't follow Christ? For those things not to happen, it would have to be true that a) Santa is a very enthusiastic bigot who is determined to preserve class distinctions and b)Santa believes that following a faith not connected to Christianity is implicitly bad behavior. According to this, Santa is really Pat Buchanan.
On the other hand, what does a child lose by never believing in something magical? I have no personal knowledge of this. I have talked with those who have lost the magic, and they still enjoy their families and their presents at Christmas. Christmas is not the same for them, but then, no two Christmases are ever the same. No two springtimes are the same, either, but the common themes of every spring still make something awaken and light up inside when you see the buds open. When you have no idea what causes that, it's a miracle. When you do know, it seems like a bigger miracle. When I had no idea how the presents got into the house, I was delighted. When I did know, it made me happy that people got me things. I was thrilled when I finally could join in the giving. To this day, I love to give a present.
There is no big answer here, and no cure-all strategy from the experts. Santa is a part of Western Culture, and believing or not believing is a part of childhood in that culture. Before walking lock-step into the Big Lie, however, it might be worth the time to think for a moment.