I remember a night my world changed forever. I was tucked cozily into bed, and Mom was saying goodnight when I mustered the question I'd been mulling over in my youthful brain: "Is Santa Claus really real?"
I may have held on longer than many children to belief in the jolly old elf who chutes down the chimney to leave presents and fill stockings. Some kids had tried to tell me he wasn't real, but only a mean-spirited person would bother to say such a thing, so they were clearly not people I should listen to. One kid said it's all a story, another said she saw her mom and dad putting the presents under the tree and eating the cookies and milk. I thought they might be lying, or they might have been mistaken, or maybe they were naughty, and their mom and dad had to fill in for Santa because he wasn't about to hop down their chimney. There was surely an explanation because he'd been to my house and eaten the cookies I left for him. My parents had clearly indicated it must have been Santa, and good parents don't lie, and my parents were good. I'd seen unhappy, grumpy people in movies who didn't believe in Santa, and when they let the Christmas spirit in, they could finally see him, and he'd been there all along. That's how it worked. I saw their eyes light up as they let the magic in. I would believe.
As I grew older, some question arose. How could he get to every house in the world? Wasn't that a lot of houses? Movies and stories showed me ideas of how time might slow down for him. I thought the explanations were fair enough for a magical guy, and I pushed away the doubts. Why doubt what was such a happy thing?
What about Santa at the mall? He couldn't be in every mall at once, could he? I mean, even for a magical person, it seemed a stretch. I asked my parents about this and was told Santa had helpers, and I had taken pictures with what were probably his helpers who passed children's messages on to the real Santa. I wondered if I had ever met the real Santa or if they had all been helpers, and I felt a little disappointed, but it did make sense. After all, I had seen people in Santa costumes and knew some of the beards seemed fake, but I had refused to let that register before I had a satisfactory explanation other than the sad and unappealing, "Santa's not real". Besides, why wouldn't you just believe? Disbelieving could not only result in Santa not visiting but would also be insulting to Santa if he were real.
But the questions had added up. I wasn't one to go with the crowd in most ways, but I was surrounded by peers who had apparently stopped believing, and I couldn't help but notice that Santa's handwriting seemed somewhat familiar... The biggest tip-off came not from those who loudly said he was fake but from those who had quietly stopped defending him.
So on this night, I had finally asked the question those who believe in the magic of Christmas don't ask. As my mom's expression told me she was arranging the words in her head to make the answer as easy as possible on me, I already knew the answer was not simply "yes". I felt a knot in my stomach.
She handled it in expert parental fashion. She told me about a kind man with a generous spirit who gave to others and of a spirit of goodwill and sharing that became the legend of Santa. The magical Santa Claus who left me presents was not real after all, at least not in the literal sense. I felt a little silly for having stood up for Santa after many of my friends already knew. I felt mournful over the loss of the most magical part of every year. It did help to hear that he had been a real person, and it helped to focus not on what wasn't real but rather on what was real: the magical spirit of Christmas I felt and saw in people's eyes every winter. With a tender kiss, I was left in the dark with teary eyes to come to terms with a new loss of innocence as I tried to hold on to the spirit of Santa in my heart while mourning his death centuries after he was said to be laid to rest.
"What will next Christmas be like?" I wondered. It seemed so sad and empty without the magic of Santa. Maybe she's well-intended but wrong? Maybe we'll experience a Christmas miracle, and we'll all see him flying away in his sleigh...? No. Something told me to let go, that this was right. I knew Christmas was about celebrating Jesus' birth, so it would still have its main meaning, even if it would be years before that inspired me more than Santa ever again could. And the Muppets and The Grinch had taught me Christmas was also about love, kindness, hope, purification of hearts, generosity, and friends and family. I let these ideas fill in the void where Santa used to be. But it took time and deliberate self-reminders to focus on what Christmas was and not what it now wasn't.
I wanted to let everyone know I knew better, and I even felt a desire to tell others so they could avoid feeling more silly when they finally found out. I did let friends know I was finally in on the secret, sometimes when asked delicately, "Do you still believe in Santa?" I no longer needed to prove I had the Christmas spirit by saying yes, though I still tried to vocalize the positive. I didn't become the newest anti-Santa crusader. What for? I had seen the truth when I was ready for it, and others would, too. Besides, what's the harm in holding on to the magical feeling of Christmas and that glimmering "what if"? How would it feel to go around making sure everyone knows Santa isn't "real"? Is that something I could do with bright-eyed excitement, even to someone who was angry at others for not believing in Santa? Wouldn't it feel kind of sinister to go around saying it, even if it was the truth? Wouldn't it feel better to focus on the meaning of Christmas and the spirit of Santa even if I no longer believed in the literal story?
Rather than resenting the cruel trick or becoming bitter about the holiday because I'd been duped, I recognized that, Santa or no Santa, it was still an undeniably magical time of year...for me, at the very least. I could either become Scrooge, or I could be inspired and buoyed by the seasonal change in my own heart and in others as we shared magical stories, gave and helped a little more, remembered what was most important in our lives, ate some great food, and remembered the birth of a Savior, whom I understood to be central to the entire purpose of our existence.
Yes, the magic I had loved so much as a child was lost, and that took some getting used to. But as I chose to hold on to the spirit of that magic, something present and persisting remained. Once I was past the sadness and defensiveness towards the stories about Santa which I had previously believed quite literally, I was able to see them with a resurrected twinkle in my eye as if to say, "Wouldn't it be wonderful?"