Four-year-old Mateo is convinced there’s a Santa Claus. I mean if you can text your gift wish directly to one of Santa’s elves at the North Pole, he has to be real. Right? And the elf’s reply to him was “right there” on the mobile phone of his neighbor, who’s six. So Santa has to be real. No Santa screwup there, if you ask me.
But before his text exchange with the elf, Mateo’s mom told me he had asked her repeatedly: Is Santa real? Is Santa real?
The Good Answer
Hearing the question fired in rapid succession made my heart race. My now-27-year-old child Harry’s unexpected Santa inquiry decades earlier flashed before me. I had to know how she replied to those four-year-old eyes filled with wonder.
“I told him that no one really knows for sure, because no one’s ever seen him,” she said. “Some people dress up as Santa – the same way he plays dress-up, but no one has ever seen the real Santa.”
“That was a good answer,” I said, impressed with her ability to hold onto the magic of Santa Claus.
“I still wish I could have had a complete do-over on the Santa question.”
“It was hard,” Linda confessed. “I really don’t like the idea of lying to Mateo.”
“Well, your answer was way better than mine,” I assured her. “I still wish I could have had a complete do-over on the Santa question.”
Harry was eight, I told her. We were driving in the car. I had just picked him up from the summer rec program. Harry informed me a kid told him that Santa wasn’t real. He wanted to know if that was true. I hesitated. My kid was asking for the truth, and, believing honest answers were important, but not prepared with a good answer, I gave it to him. I said, “Yes, Harry, it’s true.” And he burst into tears.
A Tough Conversation
I quickly pulled over to the curb to console my heartbroken kid. His sadness quickly became my own. I apologized for not stopping the car sooner talk about it. And I was sorry for not being more sensitive in my answer. I drew as many analogies as I could to imaginary play that encourages kids to dream big and believe those dreams can come true. It was a tough conversation.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
I shared with Mateo’s mom that two months too late, in September 1998, I read an article in the hometown Milwaukee paper about an editorial from 1897 that ran in The (New York) Sun. The opinion piece had answered eight-year-old Virginia’s question, “Is there a Santa Claus?” with “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
The editor wrote, “(Santa) exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.” He reminded Virginia of fairies and how just because no one ever sees them dancing on the lawn doesn’t mean they don’t exist. “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world,” he added. Personally, I still believe that last line!
I began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to Harry that same September. He was a wizard for Halloween that year, and made his very own wizard license. With reality suspended, I felt better about my Santa screwup.
Later in the year I asked Harry to give me a Christmas/Hanukkah gift wish list. The page he gave me was titled “Harry’s Wish List” instead of the usual “List for Santa.”
“You know, Harry,” I said, “Santa can still come to our house if you want.” His eyes brightened like a Christmas tree. Then with a smile and a nod, I knew there would still be magic at our house that season.
There were no cookies left out for Santa or carrots for the reindeer that year. Still, the jolly man in the big red suit brought Harry the Holiday Teddy Beanie. And for Christmas 1999, he wrapped up a Ferbie toy. As for the real Santa, well, he’s real as long as you believe in him. Let my Santa screwup guide your sleigh tonight.
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