An average kid learns the truth around age 8, in case you were wondering.
On Dec. 24, 1970, my mom got up from her bed and—for reasons she can’t explain—sleepily trudged to her bedroom window, looked up to the night sky and fixated on a red light shining on the horizon.
She shouted for my grandmother, scared if she moved even an ounce the light would disappear forever. She did. And it did.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I took a mental snapshot in that moment before I left the window, because I knew I’d want to remember it exactly as it was.”
This is the Christmas story my mother told me every year for 14 years.
My mother’s tale was as real to me as the freckle on my belly. Even now I can tap into the joy of living in a reality that holds such wonderment.
Throughout early elementary school, I was in a sea of tots who took the legend of Saint Nick to be indisputable truth. But as I grew older, I watched as the pool of believers grew smaller and smaller, until it was a puddle with one lonely soul: me.
In the third grade I noticed a big drop-off in believers, and—like an evangelical in a women’s studies class—kept my beliefs to myself. When kids chattered about Santa’s real identity, I’d bob my head along quietly and whisper, “Sorry Santa, I still believe in you.”
In middle school, my teachers dropped not-so-subtle comments, acting under the assumption we’d all moved on from Santa Claus. I felt like a double agent, secretly hiding my childish faith.
Around this time, believing became nearly impossible. Adults stood before me, using air quotes to refer to “Santa,” cracking jokes about whether or not they’d fit down the chimney this year.
I put on earmuffs, both literally and metaphorically. I wasn’t ready to know the truth.
What’s more unusual than the length of time I believed in Santa is how adamantly my mother insisted he was real. While other parents drank “his” milk and hid the presents, my mom committed on a more aggressive level.
She left hand-written letters on the cookie tray addressed personally to me, signed by Kris Kringle and sprinkled with glitter that looked like crushed opal. I cherished it year-round, kissing it every so often like a sacred relic.
One Christmas, I woke up with a porcelain doll tucked under my arm. I remember feeling punched in the gut with joy. Santa was here! An hour later my sister spoiled my mom’s thoughtful plan. “I saw you come into our room last night with that doll!” she said.
I was 14-years-old when my mom finally caved and told the truth.
“You were inconsolable,” she recalled recently. “You were so upset and felt so betrayed. It was awful.”
I asked why she chose to perpetuate the lie.
“…fully recognizing the truth meant letting go of a beautiful reality I still wanted to live in. A reality others gave me permission to exist in, then took away without my consent.
“I wanted to give you something to believe in,” she replied. I stared back at her, demanding a better explanation. She gazed at the ceiling, searching for the words.
“I think I’m drawn to things I can’t explain and I saw that in you, too. It was almost like a spiritual connection between us. The Santa lie went on for so long because I needed it for myself, too.”
By the time she admitted Santa didn’t exist, I already logically knew the truth, but fully recognizing that meant letting go of a beautiful reality I still wanted to live in. A reality others gave me permission to exist in, then took away without my consent.
Huffy intellectuals say what my mother did was wrong. Feverishly keeping up the façade creates long-term trust issues, they argue. In an article for the Baltimore Sun, David Kyle Johnson Ph.D. argues the reason the lie is harmful is three-fold:
- It’s unjustified.
- It risks damaging parental trustworthiness.
- It encourages “ill-motivated” behavior.
Johnson goes on to list other “frightening” percentages of Americans who believe in nonsense things (his words), like communicating with the dead (21 percent), ghosts (32 percent) and astrology (25 percent).
“All such beliefs are damaging?—?and they are also demonstrably false. If only there were some way we could set our children down the path of ‘knowing better.,” Johnson said.
My mom was right. Like her, I’m drawn to ideas that are more easily felt than explained. I can now recognize I’m predisposed to willful self-deception. Others like us want to believe in something more—something greater than our reality.
Soulmates are real, ghosts exist and fate determines our future. All these things continue to exist so long as we believe.
My mother still insists she saw something in the sky on Christmas Eve, 1970.
“I guess I can’t say it was Santa, but I still can’t explain it and it felt magical.”