Daughter Jess is in middle school now, and she’s years past believing in Santa Claus. Even so, she has a pretty good recollection of her Santa Christmases. So I decided to pick her brain, while it’s fresh, and try to figure out what was in it back when she was a true Santa believer.
I started with the obvious: “When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?”
“Third grade,” she said.
“What was your first clue?”
“If I didn’t ask for a big present way before Christmas, Mom would get all grumpy, because the present would be hard to find. That meant Santa wasn’t making my present. Mom was actually having to shop for it.”
“What else tipped you off?”
“Well, there was that time [our friend and neighbor] Steve dressed up like Santa. Mom had told me that everybody who dressed up like Santa was an elf, and I knew for sure that Steve wasn’t an elf.”
“Our fireplace was blocked off. It was stuffed with towels.”
With that, I felt a little guilty twinge. I could’ve taken the towels out of the fireplace and cleaned up the 40 years’ worth of soot, hackberries, brick dust, and bird carcasses that came pouring out of the chimney. I could’ve prolonged my child’s Santa fantasy. But no, I had to leave that job undone until she was 9 and I was ready to pay a chimney sweep to do it.
“How did Santa know what you wanted?” I asked.
“Mom would tell him. I thought Mom was a special helper. I thought all Moms were special helpers.”
I saw a teachable moment. “Jess, in the future, if anybody ever gives you a test, and there’s a question that asks if you’re a special helper of any supernatural being, be sure to say no. And if they ask you if your hands ever leave your body and do things all by themselves, say no to that one too. Everybody who answers yes to those two gets hauled straight to the nervous hospital.”
Jess looked at me sideways. “How do you know that?”
“Nervous people in the family.”
I remembered that Jess played along with the Santa routine when she was in the third grade, so I interrogated her about her cover-up: “How long did you pretend you still believed? And why did you do it?”
“Just one more year,” she said. “Mom was just so into it. She was so, ‘Santa is coming to town.’ ” Jess danced and shook some make-believe bells, a little reenactment of wife Brenda at Christmastime. “It was cute.”
“So you thought Mom still believed in Santa Claus, even after you stopped?”
“Yeah. If she hadn’t told me Santa wasn’t real, I’d still be pretending to believe.”
“Did you think I believed in Santa Claus?”
“Hmmm, I don’t know,” she said, all puzzle-faced. “You make up stories all the time. I don’t know when you’re telling the truth and when you’re making stuff up.”
I got a little indignant. “When do I make stuff up?”
“Every week. In that column.”
“That’s not true,” I protested. “I know, some of the stuff sounds like lies, but it’s pretty much true. A man did get blown up on his riding mower. It is legal to eat road kill in Tennessee. Tell me one lie that I’ve told.”
“You change people’s names!”
“The lawyers make me do that.”
“You exaggerate! You say your daddy was a criminal.”
“Uh, he was a criminal,” I shrugged. “He was a skilled craftsman. He made liquor stills and fixed stolen cars so the police wouldn’t know they were stolen. He did other stuff too, but mainly he was a criminal.”
“Oh,” Jess squirmed. “So that’s not made up?”
“No, daughter,” I said. “You come from criminals.”
“Can we talk about Santa Claus again?”
“Sure,” I said. “If there was a Santa Claus, what would he bring me and Mom?”
“He’d make you your very own ballfield. And he’d bring Mom a toaster, or maybe a PT Cruiser.”
“How about you? What would you get?”
“A CD burner and a bottomless credit card. One where somebody else pays the bills.”
“You’ve been hanging out with those trust-funder children again, haven’t you?”
“Uh-huh,” she nodded, then kept on with the fantasy. “I’d buy that Putt-Putt course out in Bellevue, with the batting cage and the go-carts. And I’d put in an ice cream store.”
“When you were little,” I asked, “did you ever think about what Santa did all day?”
“Yep. In the summer, I thought he’d have his own private beach in Hawaii.”
Dang rich kids have warped my child. “How about in the winter?” I asked.
“He’d be at the North Pole, making the reindeer strong, and Mrs. Santa would feed him hot chocolate and cookies. Some of the elves would be in the malls, and some of them would be at the North Pole, making presents.” She went on, “Daddy, when I was little, I wanted to be an elf and live at the North Pole for about a week at Christmastime.”
“Really? And why was that?” I wondered.
“I liked the ears.”
Send e-mail to Walter Jowers at email@example.com.