While I don’t remember who specifically told me, I remember other details around that moment so clearly, more than 30 years later. It’s odd that I can’t remember whether it was my mom or my older brother standing ahead of me and to the left as we came to the top of the center escalator at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall. I was leaning against the right railing and one of my brothers was leaning on the left railing a step behind. It was just before Christmas and the person said, with their back turned to me as they were about to step off the escalator, “You know that Santa isn’t real, right?”
I stumbled for a moment as the escalator steps flattened under my feet. I really don’t remember much after that, but I do know that Christmas had forever changed for me. I had suspected for at least a year. I was sick at some point during the previous Christmas season and my mom put me in her bed so that I could watch TV and rest while she baked cookies in the kitchen. She gave me strict orders to not look around the room. I looked around the room. My mom had done her best to cover all the wrapped presents with blankets. In the corner, one fairly large present was exposed. It was wrapped in gold colored wrapping paper with poinsettias on it. I remember staring at it a lot during the day.
On Christmas morning, I came down and found that gold wrapped present in my pile from Santa. I confirmed with my parents that it was from Santa and then I knew. It was a very cool Stompers play set (this one, I think), but it would provide the biggest seeds of doubts I had about Santa. Yet, for another year, I still tried to rationalize how a present that was in my parents room could be from Santa. I came up with a few theories as I struggled to continue to believe in Santa. I knew it in my head that my parents were Santa, but I didn’t want to believe. When it was finally confirmed a year later, it hit me like a sack of coal.
After the initial shock of the moment of confirmation, I would go on to have many more wonderful Christmases, but they never really had the same magic.
Now, as Benjamin gets older and smarter, I realize Santa may not exist for him much longer. Three weeks into this Christmas season, I am actually somewhat surprised that he hasn’t put the pieces together. Andrea and I, like so many other parents, do our best to hide gifts in places where they won’t stumble upon them. I make sure receipts are not left around and Andrea makes sure that Santa has his own paper and ribbon that gets carefully stashed away. We so desperately try to keep that magic in Christmas.
And we try to add other magic to the holiday for the boys. While other houses have Elves that visit at night, we have a Christmas Cardinal that leaves small gifts, ornaments and candy for the boys throughout Advent. The boys talk about the Cardinal with such reverence, they leave birdseed out for him and even write notes, asking him questions. The wonder out loud about how the Cardinal can do what he does, sometimes speculating that there is more than one. The Cardinal has become as much a part of our family as our dog.
There were a few years, where Christmas not only lost it’s magic for me, but seemed like a stressful interference to everyday life. Those years made me sad. Now, I really, really worry about the days when the boys no longer wonder about Santa and the Cardinal. I worry about the days when they no longer believe. And I feel like it will break my heart, just like it did that day in the mall when I was a kid, when the time comes for them to know the truth. I truly believe I need this magic as much as they do.
The truth is, and I know this is cliche, Santa does exist. Matthew told us at dinner the other night that the Santa that visits us now is not the original St. Nicholas. He thinks that the job of Santa is passed on from one generation to the next. I can’t agree with him more. I look at what my parents managed to do for six kids, year after year, and I can’t help but be amazed. That, to me, was true magic and they managed to instill Santa into me, which I now pass on to my sons. My hope is that one day, they will pass the magic along to their kids.
So, I know that while it is inevitable that one day the boys will stop believing in Santa, I am certain he will live on in them.