On Monday afternoon I went to the Lower East Side to volunteer for an art project with elementary school children.
We were making holiday cards for hospitalized children. Strictly NO words or slogans like, “Get well soon!” or “Feel better!”
"Some of these children are terminally ill," an after school instructor whispered to us with serious eyes, "They’re not going to feel better. We don’t want the kids reminding them of that."
The rest of us volunteers nodded solemnly. Right. We watched her tape these instructions to the greenish-blue institution tiles of the cafeteria wall. There were three tables set out, and I chose one on the end after watching all the other volunteers cluster close to the front.
The kids we were making cards with were second graders.
It’s been awhile since I was a second grader, but I hadn’t recalled just how still-kids-but-kind-of-not they are. They couldn’t spell for shit, and they all had that kid handwriting where any letter with a stick and D’s and B’s are a total free for all. But they were also talking to me like little mini-people, telling me what they’d learned in class and giving more than enough information about Captain America to last me a life time.
I was working with two boys and two girls. One of the boys, let’s call him Boy A, was rambunctious and talked a lot. The other little boy had round cheeks and barely said a word, though he had impeccable coloring skills.
The girls were both loud and proud. They volleyed for my attention, and huffed at one another as I often saw in high school when you couldn’t BELIEVE that girl just said that.
This was my first volunteer session for this agency, but having had experience with kids and temperamental females before, I felt fairly prepared for the interaction that occurred next.
Since we were making holiday cards, a natural holiday topic was Santa Claus. Girl A and Girl B had very differing takes on whether the Big Man Himself truly exists. All of said views reflected heavily on what they had certainly been fed by parents.
Girl B was a believer, and shortly became aghast that Girl A and Boy A were not.
"If it’s not Santa, then who is it?" Girl B asked.
"It’s the moms and the dads!" Girl A said, standing from her bench and leaning with relish into Girl B’s face. Crap, I thought. Was I witnessing the moment of Girl B’s belief having been ripped from under her?
Girl B was not ready to give up. “No, everyone knows that Santa gives two presents to all the kids.”
Hm, I thought to myself. That’s right, two presents.
Girl A just leaned farther over the table and said, “He’s not REAL.” I was shocked by just how teenage her sarcastic drawl sounded peeling from her mouth.
"Then how come every time I go to the mall he’s there?" Girl B countered.
Girl A and Boy A reared both their heads back and laughed. At this point I had to stop coloring, and lean forward as Girl B jumped off her bench in order to retaliate. Our volunteer leader had heard the commotion and was hovering over me, waiting to see if I could handle the problem.
"First off," I said, giving the eye to Girl A since she was my instigator, "we’re not yelling. If you guys want to talk you’re going to have to quiet down." Girl A paused for a moment to allow this stranger to tell her to can it. "You can believe whatever you want to believe, and so can she." This worked for about thirty seconds before they were at it again. I had to reach my hand across to separate them. A paraprofessional saved me by calling Girl A by name and telling her she’d have to move if she didn’t calm down.
I felt terrible. Not only had a failed to calm down the argument in a more meaningful way, I wondered if Girl B hadn’t just lost a bit of her childhood right in front of me.
I told Alison and my dad about the incident after I left, and most of our stories, no matter how many generations and families apart, were the same. I’d had friends from college tell me the same too.
They found gifts in their parents closets that later came from Santa. A sibling had spilled the beans. A peer had revealed something their mother had told them about Santa.
But for me I couldn’t remember the exact moment I stopped believing in Santa. Like so many other things in life, there was the before and the after but no in between.
I could vaguely remember a conversation at the fourth grade lunch table about when we’d all learned Santa was fake, and feeling both a little embarrassed and a little sad that for me it hadn’t been that long ago.
Perhaps more importantly, it was my memories of believing that I always remembered.
Growing up I had a non-traditional Christmas tree. It was made of grapevines and twisted into a cone shape. We sat it on top of a snow covered side table that usually lived in the formal living room. All the decorations had to be miniature since the tree was smaller. My parents had collected them over the years. There were fake feathered birds that sat around the top, including two yellow ones my mother’s cat had mistakenly taken for real and chewed the heads off of. There was a white orb covered entirely in googly eyes given to me in childhood by a friend of my father’s. My mother hated it, so I took great pleasure in hanging it every year. There was a wooden mermaid that I had chosen on my first trip to Greece as six year old. It was only painted on one side, so my father had colored the other side in detailed and beautiful crayon. If you pulled a string down by her fins her tail swayed.
Despite all of my friends having big evergreen firs, I never envied them. I loved our tree and the way it lit the room through the curly branches. I used to peer inside of it, looking at all the lights and decorations from the inside out.
My aunt Julie had sent me a Christmas decoration that sat around the base of the tree next to the frankincense and mir. It was a piece of red felt with a tag that read, “A piece of Santa’s real suit” in teenie tiny script. I used to sit on the couch next to the tree petting the felt between my fingers. I would hold my breath with the immensity of the thought: this was from Santa’s suit. This had SEEN Santa.
Another year, my childhood stuffed rabbit, Bunny, needed a new vest from Santa. Given to me by my other aunt, Holly, Bunny was/is a well loved toy whose neck began to give out early. My parents suggested I ask Santa for a vest or something of the like to protect Bunny’s neck from tearing or falling apart. This was a great idea, I mused to myself, wondering how my parents always had such helpful suggestions when it came to Bunny.
On Christmas Eve, my father reminded me that I would have to leave Bunny downstairs. Wait. This had not been a part of the deal. It took my dad a couple minutes to convince me that I would have to leave Bunny downstairs if I wanted his vest to fit right. I was skeptical. Wasn’t Santa kind of intuitive about this stuff? But whatever, my dad had yet to be wrong about things so I supposed I’d better trust him.
Once the anxiety wore off about spending a night sans-Bunny, the jealousy sank in. Bunny was going to SEE Santa himself. Not only that, Santa was going to pick him up and fit him with a vest.
I helped my parents set Bunny next to the grates of the fire place. He was next to the plate of homemade donuts, a carrot for the reindeer and one of my mother’s juice glasses full of milk.
When I came down in the morning, most of the treats were eaten, the milk was gone and Bunny sat propped up on the fireplace bricks with a new sheepskin vest around his fragile neck.
Once the yelling had died down, I went back to my coloring and looked over at Girl B. She didn’t seem distressed, but I couldn’t hear what was going on in her head. Was she questioning what until now had been one of her favorite things about Christmas?
Childhood is such a strange thing. It goes by so fast, and when you look back upon it it’s often as if it happened to someone else. You said and did things so uncharacteristic of your adult self, that’s it’s often the moments of Santa-skepticism and embarrassment we remember most clearly. But those are adult emotions, so no wonder those come to us the easiest.
Children walk around the house naked, they sing at the top of their lungs, they get entirely filthy and they reject eating food that doesn’t appeal to them. It’s only as adults that we become embarrassed of our nudity, whether we can sing in key, how much it costs to have something dry cleaned and going on our next diet.
I’ve always thought Beatrix Potter’s idea that animals can speak on Christmas Eve (as featured in her story “the Tailor of Gloucester,”) was wonderful. I remember wondering if our dogs in high school would lay in their kennel on Christmas Eve chatting, the one night a year they could use their words. What a fantastical concept.
And what a wonderful thing to believe so purely in the idea of Santa Claus. It’s lauded on television and in that Virginia story every year, but I’d never seen it in person. Or been forced to reflect on it.
Here we were not allowed to discuss illness with sick kids, and made watch as a child much to young to have had her belief refuted yelled about it. Both examples of adults condemning a child’s innocent sense that something could get better soon.
Long after I stopped “believing” in Santa, my Mom still left my bigger gifts out on the floor unwrapped from Santa. Both my Dad and stepmom still leave gifts under the tree to my stepsisters and me from Santa. (We also get gifts from their cats).
It was of course an allusion back to our younger years, but I like to think it’s my family’s sense of belief lingering just under the surface.
I decided on the Lower East Side on Monday afternoon, that I will be an adult who believes in Santa. Of course I acknowledge the unlikelihood of such a phenomenon. But if I were to look up on Christmas Eve and see something in the sky, or strange footprints on a rooftop, I’m going to be easily swayed that it really was Santa after all. And who knows? Maybe late on Christmas Eve Fezziwig will tell me he saw something unusual out the window.
Girl B and I colored next to each other in silence for a minute. Then I leaned over and whispered to her, “I believe in Santa.”
"You do?" She asked.
I nodded, “Yea.”