The January that he turned nine, my son Jude learned there is no Santa Claus. He found a half-used roll of “Santa’s” wrapping paper hidden in the back of the linen closet, unhappily drew the logical conclusion, and confirmed its accuracy with a direct question to his father.
Jude came into my bedroom and woke me with the devastating news. He was crying. For days after, at odd moments, he’d make almost bitter, sidelong remarks related to his discovery. “So,” he said one day in the car as we were out on errands, “The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy — that’s you guys, too, right?” He ruminated over which of his friends might be in the know and which not. Several years earlier, he’d had a heated argument with a Christian Scientist child whose family didn’t subscribe to Santa Claus. When the boy’s mother had stepped in to support her son’s claim that Santa didn’t exist, rather than being convinced by her adult authority, Jude was incensed at her ignorance, and his anger at his little friend morphed to pity.
Watching Jude slowly settle into the revised version of his world, I tried to recall my own unseating of Santa at just about the same age. I was the oldest in my family, the first to unmask the fantasy. Thinking back, I conjured up two scenes, both of them in the bathroom. In my childhood home, busy with six children, privacy was a temporary structure designated more by narrowing your scope of attention than by shutting a door. But for me and my mother, the bathroom constituted an inviolate space for serious, private talks.
In the first remembered scene, I am standing in the dark hallway outside the closed bathroom door. It is late on Christmas Eve, and down the hall, my brothers and sisters lie heavily asleep, tangled in sheets and blankets and one another. Earlier in the evening, we’d all carefully chosen long black socks from my father’s drawer and laid them out on our beds for Santa to find and fill. From inside the bathroom, I hear rustlings, whispers, even giggles. I open the door, and blinking in the sudden brightness, I see my surprised parents bending over the closed toilet seat lid, on which is piled a jumble of small objects wrapped in aluminum foil. On the edge of the sink rest two lumpy socks, already stuffed with treasures. My father holds another sock, still limp and empty, in his hand.
In the second remembered scene, some days later, my mother reclines Cleopatra-like in the tub. The room is steamy and redolent with Sardo bath oil. She looks at me tenderly, with concern, and asks me what I, many years afterward, will ask my own child. “You sort of knew, didn’t you?” Jude will answer no, he had no idea. I do the same. I sit on that toilet seat lid in the small, humid bathroom and deny any suspicions, deny curiosity, deny my own rational powers.
Of course, somewhere inside me was a weak perception that I had known the facts, but I didn’t want to admit it. I wished to be innocent of my own disillusionment. Somehow, I was aware I was relinquishing more than Santa Claus. It was a first step, albeit a small one, outside a protected world, outside the beneficent arms of generous, reliable elves and complicit, shielding parents. How could I want to take even partial responsibility for such an awesome act?
The step away from Santa was a step toward life on my own, a step toward sex, truth, death. It was the first edging away from guarantees.
Am I giving my nine- or ten-year-old self too much credit? Yes and no. All these concepts were not there, certainly. But I did feel a sharp trepidation. I sensed significance. And loneliness. Inevitable separations had begun.
I became, with this bit of knowledge, separated at once from my siblings. Now I had to connive to keep the elaborate secret from them. As the oldest, I was used to duties. I pushed the swings, combed out the snarled braids, folded the diapers, fixed the sandwiches, read the stories. But this was a duty of a different order. One I couldn’t beg off or pass on to someone else or forget to do.
There was a shift, too, in my relationship to my parents. In essence, I was inching towards them, towards the adult world, but I felt parted from them. A magical link had been broken. And, in fact, the adulthood on which I was embarking was not theirs, would never be theirs, so I wasn’t really joining them, but setting off without them towards some as yet unformed community. Perhaps for the first time, it sank in that I was growing up and that it was an unstoppable process, one that I wasn’t sure I was going to like.
In the week after Jude was forced to let go of Santa, I wondered if any such uneasy feelings had been behind his tears and remarks. He certainly was maturing, moving on, and not just because of this. He was still the little boy, affectionate, playful, free with his tears. But I had been seeing him pull in more, too, take painful or difficult situations on his own. And though he would still come to me for comfort, sometimes I had to go to him and press it upon him. He would accept it. It even calmed him some, but there was in his acceptance a politeness, a keeping to ritual which made me feel he was letting me comfort him for my sake.
He was beginning to see, I think, that his solutions and sorting outs are ultimately on his shoulders. What a lesson to have so young. Yet memory tells me it does begin then, and experience suggests it is begun young because it takes so long to learn.