After a heated game of four square, while waiting for the bubbler, my life would change.
Like the office water cooler, the bubbler line was where we 6th graders traded barbs, gossiped, and questioned everything we knew. Nothing was sacred. Not even Santa Claus. Why we were talking about Santa Claus on a hot September day, I can’t recall. What I do remember is Amy Stone, my best friend/number one tormentor raising an eyebrow as she breezed past me to the bubbler saying, with all the confidence of a TED lecturer, “There is no Santa Claus”.
I, in total disbelief replied, “There is too. I have proof!”.
The rest of our friends formed a horse shoe around us with looks on their faces that I now recognize as pity and shock for me, their otherwise intelligent friend who not only still believed in Santa Claus but was dumb enough to defend my belief in front of all the 6th grade girls.
We watched in silence as Amy drank long from the bubbler. Finishing, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and stepped right up to me. So close, I could smell the lingering remains of her Babysoft that she applied at her desk every morning.
“You can’t have proof of something that isn’t real.”
“I have a picture, pictures don’t lie.”
“You have a picture of Santa Claus?”
“It’s not really Santa. It’s probably your dad or something.”
“No, it’s not. He’s in front of our tree, it’s from when I was 5. My dad took the picture, Santa is wicked surprised, you can tell it’s him”. My voice got higher and higher as I spoke. “My parents wouldn’t lie and it’s definitely not my dad” I was shaking at this point.
“You don’t have to cry about it.”
At that moment the bell rang summoning us back to our desks.
My cheeks hot, and eyes stinging from holding in my tears, I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. All I could hear were whispers … “What a baby”, “I’ve known since I was 6”, “You think she believes in the tooth fairy too?” … Let them talk, I would bring in the photo the next day and prove them all wrong.
My parents worked very hard on keeping Santa real. It wasn’t just for me, I’m the oldest of four and I think that they encouraged me to believe for as long as I did out of fear that if I found out the truth, so would my siblings, and the magic of Christmas would be ruined. Forever.
It’s not as if I never questioned the existence of Santa. Every year starting around Thanksgiving and ending somewhere around the New Year, our house was a master class in Socratic questioning.
Q: We don’t have a chimney. How does Santa get in?
A: He’s Santa, he can get in any way he wants.
Q: Why does Santa use the same wrapping paper as us?
A: Santa brings the gifts but asks parents to contribute wrapping paper.
Q: Why does Santa’s handwriting look like yours?
A: Do you really think that Santa has time to write out every gift tag for every kid?
My parents’ answers were so reasonable and delivered with an unflappable common sense tone that there was no arguing with them.
Plus, who ate the cookies that we left out on Christmas Eve if not Santa? Where did the carrots go if not to his hungry reindeer?
And most importantly, we had a blurry Polaroid of Santa in our living room, tree twinkling in the background. A look of panic in his eyes at being caught, his face half turned away from the camera, a large gift box in his hand on its way to its place under the tree, it was such a bad photo it had to be real. A moment my father had to capture before Santa slipped away back into the night.
So, that day when I got home from school, I was expecting nothing but vindication. Before I even took my backpack off, I asked my mother for the photo.
“It’s in one of the Christmas boxes in the cellar. What do you need it for?” She was watching Donahue, something she didn’t like to be interrupted.
“Amy said there is no Santa.”
“I told her I would bring in proof.”
My mother’s eyes narrowed. It seemed to dawn on her that she and my Dad may have gone too far. That there might be some damage and serious clean-up would have to happen. She motioned me to sit down next to her on the couch and turned off the TV.
“The spirit of Santa is a very real thing. It’s something that we all have but it doesn’t necessarily belong to one person.”
“But there is a Santa or else how do we have his spirit?”
“Historically speaking, there was a Saint Nicholas…”
Picking up on the pre-cry twitch of my lip, my mother decided that she didn’t have time to crush dreams that day, she had a Cub Scout meeting to run and dinner to cook.
“You should talk to Dad when he gets home.”
“I just want the picture.”
“You can have the picture but I think it’s a good idea for you to talk to Dad too.”
Suspicious, I pulled away from her and stormed up to my room.
As I waited in my window seat, which in fact wasn’t a window seat at all but a window sill that I had piled with pillows and frills and used as my main daydreaming spot, I comforted myself with the fact that I knew my dad would set this whole Santa thing straight. He was the one I went to for all serious life questions and he never steered me wrong so –whatever he said –I would believe him. Of course my heart was aching for him to tell me that Santa Claus was real but my gut was leaning in the other direction.
Still in his suit and tie from work, my Dad joined me on my “window seat”. But he didn’t really fit, so he sat sort of half in half out, with one leg hanging off the side, gently trying to get on my level as a giant six foot adult. I asked him point blank about Santa Claus. He started in with the same, ‘there’s the spirit of Santa that lives in us all’ that my Mother tried on me. So, I took his hands and looked him the eye and asked for the truth.
“I’m ready, please just tell me, is there a Santa Claus?”
After a long hard look and a very deep sigh my father said, “No, Corinne, there is no living man named Santa Claus”.
“What about the picture?”
“It’s Jeff Kant.”
Jeff was my dad’s best friend.
“So, there really is no Santa Claus?”
My dad shook his head.
I dropped his hands and burst into tears.
My father pulled me into his chest and tried to sooth me but there was no soothing. This was the first time, though definitely not the last, that my heart would break. Truly unmistakably where you feel it inside and you think you might have to go to the hospital kind of heartbreak.
“Don’t tell the other kids?” he asked.
“I won’t” I sobbed.
My father carried me to my bed where I stayed for the rest of the night.
The next day was Friday and mercifully my parents let me skip school. Rather than relaxing I spent the entire weekend hashing out what I would do when Amy asked for the picture. There was no way for me to save face and no way I was getting out of another day of school so I had to be prepared.
Luckily, 72 hours is a lifetime for 11 year olds. By Monday the existence of Santa was old news and Amy’s focus had conveniently turned to Stephanie and her obviously stuffed bra. I was spared, for now. But just in case, I stayed away from the bubbler for a few days. I’d had enough controversy for a while.
Meanwhile, the heartbreak of knowing turned into a co-conspiratorial excitement… wrapping gifts late at night; eating the cookies that were left out for Santa; brushing off the younger kids when they questioned Santa’s existence with the same matter of fact answers that my parents used on me. When Christmas morning rolled around and I watched my brothers and sister attack their gifts and run around like a bunch of drunks, I felt the joy of bringing joy and understood why my parents worked so hard at keeping Santa Claus alive.
And no item I’ve ever received has brought me as much pleasure as the joy I get from giving to others and I think that’s what the spirit of Santa Claus is all about.