I was really hoping to put off the conversation. Like, for another five or ten years. But here it was.
Last night, a while after all the kids had been tucked in bed, Cooper came downstairs and sat next to me. He didn’t say anything for a minute, just rubbed his eyes. I could tell something was on his mind — his face was serious, his body slouchy, his fingers twining. I zipped through a mental list of what it could be — an issue with a friend? An issue with a bully? Something about school or the report card that just came home? A dozen worst-case scenarios whizzed through my head, a flip-book of fear.
There was only one way to find out. “What’s up, buddy?” I asked him. “You look worried about something.”
He nodded, sighed, looked around. I knew he was gathering the right words to express the intense idea that was weighing him down. Finally, this: “I don’t know…it’s just that…Mom, do you believe in Santa?”
OMG. Worse than I thought.
Cooper fixed his blue eyes on my face, searching. I hoped my panic wasn’t obvious.
First: stall tactics. Get him talking. “Why do you ask? Did something happen?”
Kids at school, of course, spreading rumors that it was actually the parents who put presents under the tree. Others vehemently disagreed, standing up for Santa. He didn’t know what to think. “I’m worried that I’ll get teased,” he confessed. For believing? I wondered. Then he went on, “By the kids who believe in Santa. Also, if I say I don’t believe, and I’m wrong, I won’t get any presents.”
The whole thing caught me totally off guard. I had always thought Mitzi — ever beyond her years — would be the one to first question Santa. But while she desperately longs to zoom ahead into the world of teenagers, she wholly believes in magic and fairies and mermaids and a world that exists just beyond our human eyes. No Santa? For her, that would be like saying Harry Potter couldn’t exist. Still, I always figured she’d raise questions, as she always does, that challenge everything her parents say.
I never thought Cooper would be the skeptic.
And now, what could I say? I never wanted to lie to my kids, not when asked point-blank. Then, I realized, he hadn’t asked me if Santa was real, just whether I believed. So, borrowing heavily from movies like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, I talked about the magic of the Christmas season, how miracles seem to happen more at this time of year than at any other. About how Christmas reminds us to be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more focused on other people who share the world with us. About light and love and hope and how I believed in these things. How you could consider Santa as a symbol, a reminder, of these things.
I’m not sure he bought it. And I don’t think I actually answered his question.
Cooper is a sensitive soul. He’s often the peacemaker among his three sisters, and the first one to silently give some extra hugs and love to someone who seems to be having a bad day. Even playing football — this was his first year at the sport — where he was pretty skilled at tackling, he always helped up the kid he just knocked over, patting the opponent’s back. It’s just his way, to recognize injustice and want to right the wrongs, because he seems to really believe in goodness.
How could I lie to him?
I couldn’t. So I sidestepped. And was a little relieved he didn’t ask the point-blank questions: Is Santa real? Do parents put the presents under the tree? Why did you make all that up all these years only to have me believe the lie and now my heart is shattered?
In the end, he was satisfied. We had a few quiet minutes together to share our thoughts about the real meaning of Christmas, and maybe that’s all he wanted. It’s excruciating to witness childhood innocence begin its slow and inevitable slipping away. Last night I saw the first signs that Cooper, just a couple of months away from turning 9, is closer to growing up than I wanted to believe.
So I lied, just a little. I hope he’ll forgive me, when the time comes, and I’ll be able to explain the Santa thing in a way that he understands.
And, maybe for just one more Christmas, that childhood magic will continue.