One evening as summer melted into fall, after an hour spent preparing our six year-old for bedtime and having gotten so far as to have half-closed his door for what I’d hoped was the final time that night, he said, “Mommy? I just have one question.” Although that seemed highly unlikely, as his questions tend to create a multiplicative causation, I waited for it, expecting him to ask something like “When is it the weekend?” or “Can I have a playdate with Tripp tomorrow?” or “Are there viruses in outer space?” Instead, he hit me with, “Are you Santa?”
All parents of young children who believe in Santa Claus prepare themselves for this moment, and most of us have read at least one viral account of a way to answer the question gently but honestly while still preserving the spirit of enchantment and tradition. I read one or two of those years ago, back when I thought having some tips and tricks in my back pocket might come in handy with our oldest child, but of course it had been so long since then that I couldn’t remember any of the turns of phrase or model of delivery I’d expected to sample when the need arose. And of course my child had chosen this exact time of day, as the clock was striking half-past goodnight, when I was just about to snug the door against its jamb with a sound much like punching out a time card on the way to happy hour. “Not so fast,” the boss says, “There’s still work to do here. Time to clock back in and tidy things up.”
So I lay beside the boy and did my best to recall some of the strategies I’d read those years ago, coupled with some improvisation on my own part, and here’s the basic gist of how it went. “No, buddy. I’m not Santa! One person couldn’t be Santa on his or her own. Santa isn’t even a person at all. Santa’s made up of so many people and so many feelings and ideas that it’s hard to explain, but everyone who loves to give, and gives out of love, has a little bit of Santa in them. If you could take all of those people, all of that love, and put them together into one being, that might amount to Santa, but you can’t do that exactly. That’s where the magic part gets involved. Only magic could create a single entity to represent the combined spirit of benevolent generosity in the world for as long as it’s existed, so that’s where the idea of Santa came from. Every person has a Santa spark inside, and that’s a kind of magic too. If you believe in using that spark to bring happiness to other people, then you believe in Santa because you are part of what makes him real. And when you let your own Santa spark shine, more magic can happen because saying and doing things that bring joy to other people…that’s a kind of gift you can give too. Just because you can’t necessarily open a gift and hold it in your hands doesn’t mean it isn’t something special you can keep. And if you believe that, it means you don’t just believe in the magic spark; it means you also believe in what I think is one of the most impressive superpowers: the power to give beautiful gifts to others that they can feel but not see. What do you think?”
He yawned in the adorable way they do, with that singsong whistle-catch of breath at the back of the throat, and rolled over. “Yeah, okay. Goodnight, Mommy,” he said and snuggled under his blanket. Now I’m not sure if he was just ready for me to stop talking and let him fall asleep at that point, or if I’d just told the most successfully boring bedtime story of my life, but it felt like the boss had just handed me his credit card, pushed me out of the office, and said the first round’s on him.