***WARNING – Contains Spoilers!***
It’s always a relief to me when Christmas is over. I look forward to twelfth night, the decorations boxed up and if not away, then at least at the top of the stairs waiting to go in the loft. One of our family traditions is to spend the nearest Sunday to twelfth night cutting up all the Christmas cards to make gift tags which, assuming I haven’t forgotten which “safe” place I’ve put them away in, we use next Christmas.
I’m not a complete Scrooge. There are parts of Christmas I enjoy, traditions we’ve developed as a family that make it a special time for us. But there is a lot about Christmas I dislike – the rampant commercialism, the flashing lights (they trigger my migraine), the push to spend spend spend more than you need or can afford, the dragging it out for a longer and longer period… Christmas day and Boxing day I enjoy, the months leading up to them I don’t.
This year was difficult for more than the standard reasons though. At an IEP Review in September the SENCO and Educational Psychologist had both mentioned the difficulties my son was facing because he still believed in Santa Claus. He didn’t just believe it, he was adamant. If anyone mentioned they didn’t believe my son would get into huge arguments, and get upset. He was subject to ridicule, and getting more ostracised. If this was still the case when he goes to secondary school next year they were worried about the additional social stigma he would face. We discussed ways to deal with it. The ideal would be for him to come to his own realisation that Santa wasn’t real. I wasn’t sure this would work. As I’ve mentioned several times before, for example in a different world view and learning by experience, my son is a very literal thinker who trusts the evidence of his senses above all else. He’s met Santa, he gets gifts from him, he has books about him, he’s seen him in movies and shopping malls and at parties. I wasn’t sure how to challenge that.
Over several months I introduced various things into the conversation, most notably how important traditions are, and asking the kids to think of traditions we take part in as a family, as a community, as a country and as people worldwide. The very first time I asked about their favourite of our family traditions my daughter said “The Santa Box!” and then clapped her hand over her mouth in case she’d just spoilt Santa for her little brother. He didn’t notice. What struck me as interesting was that both children thought we’d always had the Santa Box. In fact it’s something I started the first Christmas after I’d separated from their dad (my daughter was six, my son three) . I couldn’t afford to do a lot, and heard it suggested as a money saving tip on the radio. Basically you get as big a cardboard box as you can find, pop in what stocking fillers you can afford and then fill it up with balloons. Wrap it up and leave it for the kids to open. It needn’t cost a lot, but the kids have great fund digging through it, playing with the balloons, finding the toys and chocolate. As the years have gone on, and my finances and planning have improved, it’s got more things in it. I always wrap it in red paper, and that’s their gift from Santa, the other gifts are always from named people. It’s the first thing that’s opened, while the adults are sipping tea/coffee and trying to wake up. It’s a good tradition.
Despite all my hints December came and my son was still telling me in derisive terms about the foolish children in his class who didn’t believe in Santa, and no matter how non-committal and thought-provoking my answers they didn’t challenge his belief. And I knew I’d have to tell him. And I knew how upset he’d be. And I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to do it.
One evening he started again. My partner was out. My son and I were preparing tea, and my daughter was drifting in and out as we did so (two is the maximum my kitchen can hold.) I asked him how, when there were so many Santas, he knew which was the real one. He thought about it and said it was the one at Toy Library, who he’d met the Saturday before. I asked how, when Saint Nicholas was born so long ago he was still alive now? He said he just was. We talked about nativity plays, and how it’s not the real Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus etc, because they’re not alive any more, but how it’s important to remember the story. Nativity plays aren’t real, but it doesn’t mean they’re not important. Traditions don’t have to be real. But still he wasn’t moved. My son doesn’t get hints and clues, he needs explicit facts.
In the end my daughter told him “Well I don’t believe in Santa.” And he laughed as if she was being ridiculous and said “Are you saying it’s mummy? Don’t be silly. Mummy, tell her it’s not just you!”
So, in the face of a direct question, I told the truth.
To say he was devastated would be an understatement. He ran screaming from the room. “You’ve lied to me. You’ve been lying to me for years. I hate being lied to. You’re telling me Santa’s dead. Why would you lie to me?”
I don’t know how long I spent talking to him, as he lay crying and screaming in bed. I told him I loved him, I said big people make things magical for little people. Now he’s getting big he can be part of the people who make things special. I said people act out Santa’s role all over the world because they love their children and want Christmas to be magical for them, and because it’s an important tradition and generosity is something we should all remember. Just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean it’s not important.
“Why did you have to tell me now? Couldn’t you wait til I was 16? I don’t want to be big. That’s it, my childhood is RUINED”
I say that I’m sorry I’ve hurt him, and I remind him of other times he’s been angry, when he’s said he doesn’t love me and has never loved me, and yet when he calms down he says he’s sorry and that he didn’t mean it, and I hope that’s how he’ll feel about his childhood being ruined too.
“Did you tell my sister when she was 10?”
I explain that his sister worked it out for herself when she was 9. That she was upset, but she’s been helping make Christmas special for him ever since then. He asks her to come and talk to him, and I wait outside his door, listening to him grieve and feeling like the worst parent ever. I wonder if I should never have let my kids believe in Santa at all, if it would have been better for them not to have this hurt. By this point I’m crying too.
Heading back in he is slightly calmer, he has more questions, he wants to know how it all works. “So who has been doing this? Is it just you?”
I explained that all the grown ups who love him help make Christmas special. I explained that me and my partner do the Santa Box, and we pick things we know him and his sister will like. I explained that over the years different people have done the Santa letter.
“Who drinks Santa’s milk? Who eats his snacks? Who eats Rudolph’s carrots? Are you telling me there is no Rudolph either?” And he’s off again.
At some stage I feel I’ve been the target of this for too long. I wasn’t just me who deceived him. The whole of our culture and society pressured me into lying to my children, yet it is me alone who has to deal with the consequences. I give in, and passing the buck tell him the milk, the snacks and the carrots, that was all my partner!
Luckily, although my son feels things intensely, he gets over them quickly too. Once he has calmed down his sister gets upset, it’s been an intense couple of hours and if I’ve struggled no wonder a 13 year old does too. He reassures her, looks after her. He’s completely recovered and moved on. I always envy him this ability, my tendancy is to hold on to my emotions, to simmer and struggle. I wish I could just move on like he does.
By the time my partner gets home it’s all over, and he’s never called to account for eating Rudolph’s carrots. Although on Christmas Eve when my partner suggests that perhaps we should put Santa out beer this year my son tells him that “the tradition is that Santa has a long way to drive, so we give him milk.”
Three days after my son finds out about Santa one of his teeth falls out. I wonder if we’re going to have to go through it all again over the tooth fairy. “What do you think happens to your tooth then?” I ask.
“The Tooth Fairy takes it.”
“Is the Tooth Fairy real or a tradition?” I ask.
“Real” he replies, without a second thought. Then he looks at me quizzically. “Or is she? Mummy, is that you too?”
“It is” I say, braced for tears and recriminations.
“What are you like?” he says with a smile.
So this year was our first year without Santa. Both children agreed we’d still keep to all our Santa traditions, leaving out letter, milk and snacks, sprinkling reindeer food in the garden, getting the Santa Box.
And it felt better, because we were all part of it, we all knew the traditions inside and out. And next year we’ll continue developing our own traditions.