The Boy Who Believed
By Shannon Ralph
My wife and I recently broke down and told our children the “truth” about Santa Claus. Our oldest son will be 13 next month. He stands 5’10 and is sporting a baby mustache. Our twins are nine years old. The reason we decided to tell our children the truth about Old St. Nicholas has a lot to do with my nine-year-old son of the same name.
Nicholas is a unique child in many ways. He is the baby of the family (his twin sister is exactly one minute older), and he very much relishes his position in the family hierarchy. He has embraced his “baby” status with wonton abandon. Unlike his siblings, he still calls me “mommy” and it is not uncommon for him to climb into my lap for hugs and kisses. He comes home from school every day and immediately puts on his fuzzy footie pajamas. He still has a special “blankie” that goes everywhere with him. He is a homebody to the core, and the family peacemaker. Gentle and kind-hearted, there is nothing he loves more than spending time at home with his family.
These are all truly wonderful qualities that make him an amazing child, but they’ve also been known to cause him problems on occasion. He has trouble at times relating to children his own age. He’s somewhat immature and tends to play better with younger children. As a result, he has few friends at school. He is a follower, seldom standing up for himself—even (especially) with his twin sister. He is a sensitive child, quickly dissolving into tears when his feelings are hurt.
Nicholas is in 4th grade this year. In his school system, middle school is 5th grade through 8th grade. Next year, Nicholas will leave his safe, non-toxic elementary school and enter the dreaded piranha pool of middle school. Homerooms and lockers and switching classes. “Cool kids” and nerds and social outcasts. Girls in bras and boys with peach fuzz. Pungent pubescent body odor floating through the hallways like fragile snowflakes caught in a breeze.
This whole scenario terrifies me.
Nicholas has never been bullied at school. We’ve been lucky, in no small part to the amazing Minneapolis public school he attends. In many ways, he has always been regarded as a sort of anomaly. A class pet, even. The boys leave him alone and the girls coddle and coo over him like he is a doe-eyed puppy. But middle school is different. Nicholas is ripe for the picking. And the last thing his mother and I want is to arm any would-be tormentors with ammunition. We considered his firm belief in Santa Claus just such ammunition.
So we did what any responsible parents would do. We sat Nicholas down at the kitchen table (along with his siblings), took a deep breath, looked him in the eye, and deftly crushed his tiny little soul.
For his own good, of course.
We did it tenderly, using phrases like “Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas” and “Santa will always be real in our hearts.” Our oldest son simply smirked. One month shy of his thirteenth birthday, he was well aware of who financed his holiday money train. Nicholas’ savvy twin sister grinned triumphantly. Never one to pass up an opportunity to outsmart her momma, she responded, “Well, duh! It was your handwriting on the presents every year!”
Rather than smirking or grinning, Nicholas’ shoulders slumped and he visibly sank into his chair. When we first began, he said quietly, “Oh, God. I know what you’re going to say.” Obviously, he had heard rumors about Santa Claus, but didn’t want to believe. Or rather, he DID want to believe.
Nicholas listened quietly, nodded in agreement, and the deed was done. Our children, including the precious baby of our family, knew the truth. They were officially in on the Santa secret. My wife and I felt accomplished. An unpleasant chore was done.
Or so we thought.
One week later, Nicholas came up to me, a sober look on his face.
“Mommy,” he said gravely. “Who is going to eat the cookies we put out on Christmas Eve?”
“Hmmm, that’s a good question, Nicky,” I replied. “Maybe we can eat them together?”
Nicholas thought about this for a moment before replying. “I think we should just leave them there,” he said. “Just in case.”
Just in case.
A couple of nights later, Nicholas came to my bedroom as I was getting ready for bed.
“I’m writing a letter to Santa. Do you want to see it?”
“You are?” Naturally, I was surprised.
“Yeah. Just in case.”
Just in case.
“Where should I send my letter, mom?” he asked.
“Oh, honey,” I replied. “I don’t know.”
“Will you take it and mail it?”
“Sure, Nicky. But do you remember what we talked about? About Santa Claus?”
“Yeah, I remember. But will you mail it…just in case?”
Just in case.
Apparently, my son has a contingency plan. But just in case of what? That his moms lied to him? That the whole thing was merely a test? That Santa is real and the rest of us don’t realize it because we stopped believing in the magic of the season years ago?
I’m not sure how to react to Nicholas’ firm belief in Santa. In a weird sort of way, I am proud of him. For perhaps the first time in his young life, my son is taking a stand. Refusing to be a follower and charting his own path. He was given a piece of information—that Santa is not real—and rather than believing it simply because someone in authority told him it was correct, he is examining his own belief system. He is keeping an open mind that perhaps, just maybe, everything he is told is not absolutely true. Everything is not black and white.
If Nicholas is going to take a stand—if he is going to grasp his youth tightly with both hands and refuse to let go—what better place and time for him to plant his childhood flag firmly in the ground than at Christmas? At that time of year when we are our most tender and our most innocent. When the best in humanity comes to the forefront as we volunteer at soup kitchens and donate to Toys for Tots and bake cookies for our neighbors and hold our children close and revel in spending time with the people we love the most in the world. When we sing carols of joy and of peace and of a singular, unparalleled love. When humanity becomes—for a couple of weeks at the end of an exhausting year—just a little bit more human.
If my son wants to believe in Santa, who am I to stand in his way? Maybe it’s time that I place a little more faith in magic. In imagination. In hope. In a wish. In a prayer. In a whisper. In the power of an ideal.
Maybe it’s time that this world-weary momma believe in Santa Claus, too.
Featured Photo by Onion