As a child, I was deeply invested in Santa. On Christmas Eve, I put out apples and carrots for the reindeer. My older brother, Phil, helped. There was nothing more gratifying than finding the empty plate on Christmas morning. I had helped Santa's reindeer on their way.
In the weeks before Christmas, I wrote long letters to Santa addressed to the North Pole. My friend, Karen, accompanied me once to mail one.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Actually, what she said was, “What do you think you're doing?”
I explained that I was writing to Santa.
“There's is no such thing as Santa Claus,” said Karen.
(Karen was a year older than I, and a year wiser. Besides that, her family celebrated Hanukkah. She had absolutely zero stake in Santa.)
I knew what she said was a lie, an ugly rumor. But the sheer heresy of it upset me.
Christmas drew nearer. At school, a philosophical debate raged among my classmates, “Does Santa Claus exist?” The entire first grade was divided over the issue. I allied myself with the “Yes” camp, but the question itself disturbed me. Why should a fundamental truth such as the existence of Santa Claus be the subject of such intense controversy? Could it be because he didn't exist?
The closer Christmas came, the more heated the debate.
I picked at the question like a scab, endlessly interrogating my mother and father about it. Finally, under the pressure, my parents started to crack. With horrified fascination, I moved in for the kill, grilling them until they admitted, flat out, that they had lied to me about Santa Claus. I was deeply shaken. Inwardly, I had always believed that Santa Claus existed. I just wanted to be absolutely sure of it.
The reverberations over the Santa Claus deception sent shock waves through my six-year-old psyche, shattering my trust in the adult world and its institutions. What stunned me was how cooperatively and how consistently the Santa fiction had been presented. Even my brother was in on the plot. And it had worked. I had believed, completely and uncritically.
Now I exchanged my naive acceptance of Santa for a sharp-bladed tool called critical judgment. With this powerful new instrument I began to reexamine my universe.
Every Sunday, I went to Mass with my mother. Was this, too, an elaborate adult collusion? Did God really exist? Were the priests at church exchanging knowing looks with the parents? Were the nuns smiling at the trusting children behind their long veils?
I took it a step further. What if the whole world and all my experiences and perceptions were one massive conspiracy, a backdrop on which air and trees and sunlight and people and time were painted?
These thoughts threw me into a mild panic. I saw reality, my very consciousness, rip before my eyes, like a worn-out stage curtain in a carnival sideshow. I'd walk around stiffly or sit staring in the car, wondering whether that red light my mother stopped for really existed, or if she was only pretending.
What was real? What was illusion? And what was behind that curtain?
I became intensely interested in what lay behind the appearance of things, in the interior lives of people around me – the reality behind the image. What dramas unfolded behind the quiet facade of that stolid-looking brick house across the street? Beneath the placid face of the old man walking his dog? These became the urgent, and unanswered, questions of my childhood. They could have driven me crazy (they drove my parents crazy), but instead I became a writer.
Writing is an exploration, a peek behind the curtain to glimpse what lies beyond – and within. It is a way to answer your own rhetorical questions.
Though my Santa shock caused me to look at the world with new and more discerning eyes, Christmas never lost its excitement for me. I still love Christmas – the magic and the music, the lights shining through the winter darkness.
My first children's book, Noelle of the Nutcracker, is a Christmas story about a magical ballerina doll. But the magic that I live and write by is a hard, stubborn magic that comes from within. It's a magic that endures in spite of setbacks and disappointments. It's the meaning you create for yourself when the illusion has fallen away. It's the fir tree that stays green through the long winter, the resurgence of hope and the renewal of spring.
My friend, Mary, tried to straddle the line between magic and reality. She told her son that Saint Nicholas was a man who lived long ago, and that he was the spirit of Christmas today. Six-year-old John listened quietly, seeming to understand.
When she finished, he went running outside, shouting to his friends, “Santa Claus is dead!”
My own daughter is 20 now and has her own existential questions to wrestle with. However she chooses to answer them, I hope she'll always feel the spirit of joy, love, and celebration of life alive in the world and within herself.
Undeniably, there is magic in that.