I think it was fourth grade. My son came home from school to tell me that a girl in his class had told him something about Santa. She’d said that Santa was just parents in disguise. When I asked what he thought about that, he emphatically replied, “Oh, I told her she was wrong! Santa is real!”
While I admired his zeal for upholding truth as he knew it to be, I also realized that he needed to know the truth. You see, my husband and I had really played up the Santa gig. At the time, our son was our only child, who also happened to have autism. In other words, we made sure our son had lots of opportunities to see Jolly Old St. Nick. In fact, Dad owned a full-on Santa suit and used it frequently during the holidays for community events and in-home visits. Being an only child, our son didn’t have another sibling to help him figure out that Dad was in the suit. Being autistic and not one to really focus on faces, he couldn’t see that it was his dad in disguise. And Dad creatively disguised his voice, playing the part to perfection. Being a trusting child, he believed what we had told him. And he defended that belief wholeheartedly. Yet his friends could easily see it was Mr. Smith in the suit. They still believed in the “real” Santa, of course, because that’s what their parents had told them. In my heart, though, I knew the gig was up for us.
So I debated what to do. Finally, after seeing Rise of the Guardians, (affiliate*) which happened to show within a week of the school episode, the subject of “Are Santa and All the Other Holiday People Real?” came up again. This time I took the plunge. We were in the car, after the movie, parked in our garage, talking–just my son and I. I remember the moment clearly.
This time when he asked, I said, “Do you remember what the girl at school told you?” He definitely did. “What if,” I continued, “she’s right?” He stopped and stared at me. “What do you mean?” he asked. And then I spilled the beans. Instantly, he was heartbroken and I was certain I’d done the wrong thing. “You mean to tell me this whole time it was just you and Dad?” he clarified. “Yes,” I said, with a lump in my throat, rushing to explain that we’d done it to make his holidays memorable and fun–and magical.
Then, in a very grown-up way, he swallowed hard and simply said, “I understand.” I wasn’t sure he did, but he seemed to. Knowing how his mind works, I knew he needed time to process all this new information, so we left the car and he went to his room to be alone.
A little while later, I checked in on him; he seemed ok. We talked a bit more. Then he didn’t want to talk more. He seemed done with the idea. So I let it go, with a simple suggestion that he not tell any friends who still believed in Santa. I informed him that was a job for moms and dads. He agreed.
We went on with the season, and he seemed quite pleased to know something secret, something mature that other kids didn’t know. He liked the “rite of passage,” so to speak. Later, though, I found out that he told his best friend the very next day. Even now, I hope that child’s mom forgives me for ratting out Santa to my kid so he could spoil the magic for her kid.
So why did I tell my kid that Santa (and the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, leprechauns, and so on) are just made up? Thanks to Rise of the Guardians, we cleared up the truth about all of them. I told my son about them because he really wanted to know. He has a literal, smart mind. If you tell him something, he believes it. It’s truth or it’s not; black or white.
We are a religious family. My husband and I tell our son about prophets, Jesus, Heavenly Father. We talk about having faith in them. We believe in them. They are real. So when our son asks us if something is real, we want him to trust that we are telling him the truth.
After the “Santa Talk,” I told my sister what I’d done. She knew it had been tough for me and our kid, but she was annoyed I’d done it. “Why didn’t you just avoid the question?” she asked. She has four kids and hadn’t told any of them about Santa. The ones who were old enough to know had just eventually figured it out. She pointed out that I could have just said, “If you think he’s real, then he is.” Or I could have just changed the topic. Something like, “Santa is so much fun. So, do you think we’ll get snow for Christmas?” Maybe I could have tried: “If you don’t believe, you won’t receive.” “Some say he’s not real, but I’d like to think he is.” “Who knows? It’s just fun to think he is real. Let’s play along.” Or maybe this picture would have sealed Santa’s fate:
Every family handles this situation in different ways. In our family, my kid needed to know. I just felt it. I knew he would defend Santa forever unless he knew the truth, and I didn’t want him to feel stupid when peers pointed out the obvious. I wanted him to be “in” on the secret, to be informed. I wanted him to know I would always tell him the truth when he asks for it.
And so . . . that is how I handled the dreaded “Is Santa for real?” question. I don’t know that I handled it perfectly. I don’t even know if every parent needs to openly discuss it. But just recently, now that my son is a teenager, I asked him, “Do you remember when you first learned the truth about Santa?” He totally remembered. “Was it a good thing I told you the truth?” I asked. He didn’t even hesitate to tell me that he was glad I’d done it. I know it hurt and shocked him at first, but then he knew.
Now he has a little brother. We still play up the magic of Santa. But when little bro eventually asks if Santa is true, maybe he’ll ask his big brother first. If not, I’ll still answer with the truth. But he’s only four, so I hope I have a few more years to make the magic of Santa happen–with the help of his older brother and dad.
Your turn: How have you handled the Santa situation?
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