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Dad, is Santa real?

The magic of reality

How could I deny her that? Between the stars, black sky hid magic. Stealthily I unlatched the cold metal buckle and poked my head over the console to scan the realm beyond the windshield for a sign. The radio on the family Buick was an ember in the dark, its voice a precarious connection to the fantastic. His reindeer had been spotted over the highway! On the left, floodlights turned the sandy bricks of the elementary school into giant luminaries like the ones perched in the snow at home lining our driveway like a landing strip. We were so close! I leaned farther forward and craned my neck. “Put your seatbelt back on!” my mother chided. My father drove on.

White puffs of warm breath sucked into the bitter void beyond windows rolled down, as every Christmas Eve we’d crawl past to gawk at houses bathed in chromatic splendor, gaudy lawn displays, and photonic symphonies that would tempt epileptics. My favorite featured loudspeakers blasting melodic holiday cheer in triple-digit decibels. My mother found the serene, monochromatic displays more tasteful. Silent Night over Jingle Bell Rock for her. But the annual tour of decorations was merely a happy byproduct of our primary mission: to spot Santa’s sleigh as it skipped whimsically across the night sky. I never saw it, but it was there. He was there.

Eventually, the supernatural became ludicrous. Decades passed. I’d made major changes to my life philosophy by this point, the most important being that I actually had a consciously-chosen life philosophy instead of a set of arbitrary, conflicting edicts passed down by ancestors, or an amorphous fog absorbed unwittingly from friends, teachers, and MTV. I understood principles–ones that were true, anyway–not as a handful of sometimes conflicting and idealistic clichés, but as integrated generalizations of concrete experiences in the real world. In the long run, having principles wasn’t naive, it was practical. I became a parent myself. And as her first Christmas approached, I began to ponder the promise I made to my daughter and to myself: honesty.  

Technically, Santa would be a con. But surely a benevolent one, right? Like planning a surprise party for a friend; not an attempt to gain unearned value through deceit, but a fleeting, happy lie for which the fooled would ultimately be grateful. And everyone would be in on it. It’s a hoax that’s not just socially acceptable, but socially enforced. Not participating would provoke mild pariah status. Only the cardiac permafrost of a misanthrope would willingly spoil such magic for a child. The magic of Christmas.

And yet, magic isn’t a feeling at all. It’s just a product of our imagination. We use magic as a metaphor to describe our sense of seasonal wonder, awe, anticipation, joy, love. Was misrepresenting myth as fact required for humans to feel these things? That hadn’t been my experience at all. And were stories of flying reindeer told to toddlers really the same as surprise parties for friends? Because my daughter wasn’t my friend–not really. My responsibility to her went well beyond friendship between independent, responsible adults. Like it or not, my behavior was her model for metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical development. She was born lost in reality, and I was one of her default mapmakers. She relied on me in every sense of the word, and in a way more fundamental than any friend ever could. I couldn’t risk it. I obeyed the principle. I kept my promise.

I told her about Santa Claus, of course. And she listened, transfixed, images of red-nosed reindeer, colorful elves in pointed hats, a bag bursting with toys, a pudgy, rosy-cheeked philanthropist with a penchant for consuming Christmas cookies, and a time-dilating, physics-defying sleigh all materialized behind her wide, enraptured eyes. But I also told her it was just a story; a fun, ridiculous, imaginary story that we made up and enjoyed telling each other. She absolutely loved it. She asked for more stories, so I fed her a half-baked invention about a man cleverly named “the Robber Barron” who celebrated “Capitalism Day” (yes, I’ve pretty much always been a nerdy free market evangelist). It clearly wasn’t as captivating as that Kris Kringle guy, but the idea that anyone could fabricate a legend struck a chord in her. Something beautiful and unexpected happened after that: she fell head-over-heels in love with myth.

Each year, we’d tell stories about Santa and contemplate the same conundrums any other family might: what happens if you don’t have a chimney? How can he get to every house in one night? How do all the toys fit in his bag? But knowledge that it was a myth meant we weren’t trying (or pretending) to figure out someone else’s story; instead, we were participating in the creation of the story itself. There was a heightened sense of excitement in knowing we had the power to make the Santa myth ours. My daughter also began adding to my paltry “Capitalism Day” lore: the Robber Barron was endowed with various supernatural abilities, came from Saturn (her favorite planet) and visited Earth once a year to sell ice (apparently Saturn’s rings are made of ice). Then she started voraciously consuming anything and everything to do with Greek and Egyptian mythology: the original myths, modern variations, historical fiction inspired by them. Our house became littered with books about pharaohs and gods. By the time she was in fourth grade, her obsession made her the resident expert on Egyptian history in almost any crowd of adults.

She’s old enough now that I’ve asked her about her experience–about being told upfront that Santa Claus was fictional. At the time, we’d explained to her the fact that other parents were pretending that it was real for their children, and that her friends wouldn’t find out until they were much older. We’d impressed upon her the importance of respecting that parent-child relationship and not spoiling it for them by wielding the truth as a weapon, or by blurting it out carelessly and unprompted. Years later, my daughter expressed a distinct thrill at being let in on the secret as a child. She said that telling her the truth not only increased our credibility with her in general, but that knowing she was privy to information withheld from other kids made her feel special and trusted–a trust she’s worked hard to keep ever since.

This year, our family will once again pile into the back of the Range Rover on Christmas Eve. There’s no snow here, and there are no Santa radar reports from the local radio station, either–perhaps those died in the ‘80s. But there will be music. And windows rolled-down, kaleidoscopes of light from competing displays surrounding us as we idle forward. My oldest will lean back in her seat, letting the steel from a thermos of hot chocolate warm her hands as Christmas glitter homes march by. My youngest won’t remember much about the night, or the back seat, where her older sister sits spinning tales about pharaohs and Saturn and Santa in between sips. But I will. Telling her the truth about Santa Claus didn’t rob my daughter of Christmas magic, but it may have turned her into a magician.

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