At the dinner table last Thursday night, Ava was looking for a fun topic to finish off our meal.
“What do you think Santa is doing right now?”
Both kids smiled. Then Pip launched into an extended soliloquy describing the complex logistics work that Santa and his elves might possibly be undertaking at that very moment, including the movement of present stockpiles into strategic locations around the world via secret submarines and blimps disguised as clouds. All of these ideas came from a fun Christmas book I gave Ava several years ago called How Santa Really Works, and Pip cycled through them with a bit of tongue tucked into his cheek.
Polly’s eyes were glowing with excitement at her own ideas, and as Pip wound down she inserted something about getting the reindeer ready, a reference to a Christmas book she enjoys, Jan Brett’s The Wild Christmas Reindeer. As Ava and I turned toward her to see what else she might want to add to this, Pip threw out curveball.
“Or,” he said lightly, “he may be doing nothing since Santa’s just parents staying up late.”
Ava and I both froze for a split second - our eyes flashed at each other - then kept going toward Polly pretending that we hadn’t heard what Pip had said. Polly continued to talk about what the reindeer were up to and soon we were clearing the dishes off the dinner table.
Pip tested the parents-as-Santa hypothesis twice during Christmas last year, mentioning quietly to Ava and I how it might be possible that she and I stayed up and brought out the presents after he and Polly went to bed. Each time he did this, we just shrugged and mumbled something about Santa being a mysterious person whose methods were not clear to us, and he seemed willing enough to leave it at that.
But this year he’s gotten more aggressive. Twice now he’s attempted to ambush us in front of Polly the way he did on Thursday night, throwing something out to see how Ava and I will react. While both times he’s used the late-add-on-to-another-line-of-thought technique that gives both him and us room to squirm away without giving a definitive answer, it’s pretty clear that he’s decided Santa’s not real. As such, he’s no longer interested in confirming that answer. The ambushes are more to see what gymnastics we’ll do in order to avoid admitting it.
This would be fine – I’m happy to play a game of wink-wink, nudge-nudge with him - except that Polly is still fully ensconced in the enchanted ignorance of childhood. Recently we went to the Home Depot for a kid’s clinic and the folks there had a couple of girls dressed up as Ana and Elsa from the movie Frozen. Polly was thrilled and had a great time taking pictures with them and giving them hugs. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that she even paused to consider whether they were real or not. The characters were there in person, and there was no reason to think too much more about it.
She is currently in the same place with Santa. While Pip is talking about logistics, Polly wants to hear all about Rudolph and to make sure we leave cookies for him. She is reveling in the wonder of Santa’s magic and the spectacular possibilities that fill the world. I don’t want Pip to ruin that for her.
We started doing the Santa Claus game when Pip was almost three years old. It was a conscious decision made because both Ava and I enjoyed having Santa as part of Christmas during our childhood. Santa added a touch of magic and excitement to the season that made the air crackle with life. He wasn’t the omniscient judge of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ (He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, gonna find out whose naughty and nice). He was more the kindly grandparent who brings a couple of new toys with him whenever he visits
As adults, playing the Santa game gives us an avenue by which to be silly and playful with the kids. It is a prod for their imaginations and a topic to talk about at dinner. In worlds that are increasingly separated from each other – the kids now have their lives at school that we only glimpse from time to time – it’s nice to have a common mystery to wonder over.
What I find interesting now is that Ava and I spent as much time talking about whether or not to do Santa at all because it turns out that Santa’s existence as a real being has a very short shelf life. Santa didn’t really come alive in Pip’s imagination until his fourth Christmas. And now, four years later, he’s done; and probably has been so for a year. That’s a three to four year lifespan for the Santa that Ava and I discussed so seriously several years ago. It’s a pittance. It’s nothing. We got all lathered up over something that was done in the blink of an eye. This realization doesn’t make me upset. It’s just shocking how quickly it came and went.
There is a touch of sadness in this shock as well and not just for the loss of the niceties I mentioned above. The eminent passing of Santa as a real being means that as a family we’ve moved past the sweet spot on this version of Christmas. We’ll transition into other versions with their own sweet spots – the freedom from school version, the hanging out with high school friends version, the home from college version, the Ava and I go to the beach version, etc – but this one will no longer return.
I guess I wasn’t prepared for that to happen so quickly.