Parenting

Becoming Santa—What Happens After Your Kids Stop Believing

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I knew the moment I saw it that it would be the perfect fit. I knew because he brought it. His elves had created it just for me, exactly to fit my body. The perfect shiny purple, too, with white tassels on the handle bars. The second-hand bike my dad had gotten me the year before, a red monster that was so big my toes couldn’t touch the ground when I needed to steady myself, had been all wrong. Not that it was my dad’s fault he didn’t have the same magical abilities as Santa’s elves.

That Christmas morning was the first time I rode a bike without training wheels. Previously, for months, my dad had tried to run behind me holding onto the seat of that awful red bike, getting frustrated with me when I insisted it was too big, that I needed to be able to touch my toes to the ground from the seat. With Santa’s bike, I hopped on and flew down the street like I’d been riding for years, Christmas magic coursing through my limbs.

My belief in Santa was unshakable — the jingle bells I heard outside my bedroom window one Christmas Eve had sealed it. And, on a more practical level, I knew my parents could not possibly afford the shiny pile of gifts Santa unloaded from his sleigh for my sister and me every year. My family had what we needed, but money was always tight.

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The morning I realized Santa is not, in fact, a living, breathing person who resides in the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and thousands of clever elves, I was devastated. I had lost a tooth the previous evening, and I woke up with my mom’s arm under my pillow, trying to stealthily deposit a dollar from the “Tooth Fairy.” The entire house of cards came crashing down at once, and just like that, in a single, cataclysmic instant, every magical being I’d believed in my entire young life ceased to exist. Sitting on the edge of my bed that morning, I had my first existential crisis. The crumpled dollar my mom had given me for my tooth did nothing to assuage my anguish.

Nevertheless, when I became a parent myself, I didn’t hesitate for a moment to create the legend of Santa within my own family. Other parents I knew had sworn off the idea of Santa. The idea of lying to their kids’ trusting faces for years on end didn’t sit well with them. I understood. But I did my own cost-benefit analysis and came to a different conclusion. The moment of devastation I felt at nine was fleeting and inconsequential compared to the years of magic that preceded it.

Still, every year, the question of whether, and how, and for how long to “do” Santa resurfaces for parents. In my local parents’ group, a fellow mom posted that her son, a second grader, was being teased for still believing in Santa. She begged other parents in the group to please talk to their kids who no longer believed, to ask them not to crush their friends’ innocent belief in this magical figure. Reality will settle in soon enough, she implored. Can we let them have this for one more year?

For those of us who propagate the legend of Santa for our kids, the predicament of how to handle the truth when it invariably comes out can be a prickly one. Parents view their kids’ cessation of belief in Santa as a tragic coming-of-age milestone, and like something they should feel guilty about because they “lied” to their kids.

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I don’t think it has to be that way though. For us, the magic of Santa doesn’t end at the same time belief in him does. In fact, I still believe in Santa and always will. So do my kids. To me, Santa is a two-sided coin. On one side of the coin is the Santa who rides in a magical sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, travels at lightspeed, and fits billions of toys into a single bag. On the other side of the coin is Santa as “he” really is — the millions of magic makers who, like my parents, let an imaginary man take the credit for their financial sacrifice and painstakingly thought out purchases. My dad picked out my perfect purple bike and when I told him with haughty certainty: “See? I told you that other bike was too big. Santa knew exactly the right size bike to get me,” he only stifled a laugh in response.

My dad was Santa. Everyone who creates the magic of Santa is Santa. Whether you’re the caregiver buying the gifts and placing them under the tree or you’re the big kid who has stopped believing but continues to play along for the little kids who haven’t, you’re Santa. When a child no longer believes in the flesh-and-blood toy maker as an actual being who exists in reality, they become Santa — the real Santa, who is collectively all of us who create his magic. It becomes their turn to uphold the magic of Santa for the littler kids who still believe. The magic is and always was real — not a lie. It’s only the child’s involvement in the magic that shifts.

When my son learned the truth about Santa, I told him about the two sides of the coin. He was bummed about Santa not being a literal real man in a red suit, but the idea of becoming Santa took the sting out. From then on, he carried the mantle of Santa with solemn conviction, telling other little kids the story of the year Zachary the Elf somehow managed to get into the Christmas candy while we were gone to visit family for a few days, or the story about the jingle bells outside his mom’s window when she was a kid. Little kids’ eyes light up at these stories, and when I see my son tell them, I know he has not lost the magic of Santa. He is just operating from the other side of the coin. He has become Santa. All children can.

Although, who really knows — maybe Santa is real after all. To this day, my parents insist they never once shook any jingle bells outside my bedroom window.

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