“I know, ya know,” Amy whispered hoarsely.
“Know what?” I asked. Whatever our young neighbor’s secret, she’d shielded it from the ears of her little sister, Katie, who was in the bedroom coloring Rudolph’s nose with my daughter, Helen and her baby sister, Becky.
“I know there’s not really a Santa Claus and whenever you see one it’s just somebody’s dad in a red suit.” I stopped spooning out marshmallow fluff and turned to look at her. This was my first adult encounter with such an announcement and I didn’t know whether to offer condolences or arguments. But Amy wanted neither. “Just wanted to tell you,” she said. “Don’t worry I won’t tell those guys.” She motioned toward the bedroom like it was a different world.
“Shucks,” I thought. At nine years old, Amy had reached the fourth and final stage of believing in Santa. Sharing her discovery with an adult friend was apparently part of the acceptance process. I bet she told her teacher, the bus driver, the man who loaded groceries into her mom’s car and as many neighbors as possible on that same day. As far I know, Amy went back to coloring with her playmates—who remained somewhere between the second and third stages of Santa—as though the discussion never occurred.
Now that I’ve reached that blessed resting place between being a young mother and becoming a grandmother, it’s hard for me to recall the days when my kids really believed and I lied for the sake of Santa. But there was a time when I wanted him to be a real guy who parked his reindeer in my front yard and ate the sugar cookies I left on the coffee table. Who else would make my girls get all wide-eyed and breathless on Christmas Eve? What could possibly enchant them as much as lying there at 2 a.m., so sure that the sounds of their dad and me tromping by their bedrooms to haul and wrap presents must be Santa Claus? Having little Santa-enthralled cherubs had been part of my holiday picture since way before they were born. And, despite the hard work it was keeping up the fantasy, I somehow knew that, once this phase of my life was past, I’d wish I could watch it again like an old Bing Crosby movie.
During those years, I sometimes did catch myself studying my girls when they’d ask Santa for toys too big to squeeze down the chimney…and dolls found at only one place between here and the North Pole. How come, I wondered, nothing seemed implausible for Santa? At times like that, I’d have to reach into my subconscious for the fuzzy impressions of Christmases long, long ago—way back to the stage where anything could come true.
Stage one: We’re born into this world naked, helpless, and with an unconditional love for Santa Claus already rooted in our soul. He is the only stranger we’re allowed to hug and, the first time we’re placed in his lap, we bond instantly and instinctively. He’s as comfortable as our dad, yet the brightest, biggest dream we’ve managed to touch so far.
This pure, unfaltering passion lasts till the age of three or four, right about the time when we begin asking questions like, “Why does it hurt when I pinch myself?” and “Did Santa really see me make a face at my mom?” In our unending search for many different answers to all questions, we happen to come across Santa in Sears and….What’s this? It looks like he’s got black rubber stuck on top of his shoes instead of real boots…and a beard attached to his ears rather than his chin! Luckily, our little brains start shutting down to protect us and we don’t look as closely during the next several encounters. And luckily, our moms tell us about Santa’s Helpers. Knowing there are thousands of men with all sorts of footwear and fake padding willing to help out “The Real One” is quite a comfort while we’re in Stage Two.
“If you’re Santa’s Helper, how come you drove over here in a Jeep?” Becky’s friends asked during her kindergarten Christmas party. They were in Stage Two and Santa’s Helper that year was my dad, her grandpa, who loved to make up stories and laugh too loud just as much as he loved to dress all in red and be the center of attention. “Oh, well, the reindeer and I landed over at the airport. The Jeep is a loaner ’cause the road over here would have ruined Santa’s sleigh,” he said.
Ah, ’twas a blessed time, indeed! There was my little blonde angel who knew always telling the truth was important so grownups would be proud and trusting, blissfully sitting in her lying grandpa’s lap—sure as anything he was the real deal ’cause he just landed at the Skyhaven Airport with a sack of goodies for her and all her friends. “Well, Santa,” Becky said, “you do like your Christmas cookies, don’t you?” Totally oblivious, she giggled and poked his very Grandpa-like jelly belly.
That scene came flooding back to me the other day when I picked up the Rangeley Highlander and discovered that, up here, kids get to go to breakfast with Santa at Orgonon, the Wilhelm Reich museum. (For those of you not from around here, Rangeley was once ground zero for Wilhelm Reich’s unique research into harnessing environmental energy fields.) “Woah, now that would have been a fun Christmas with Grandpa!” I chuckled. I could see him lumbering in—his red suit all soaked, beard dripping, boots a bit scuffed and mittens slightly frayed—with his sack of toys glowing from tiny flashlights he’d hidden inside.
“Boy, it sure is exciting for Santa to come to Rangeley!” he’d holler to the tykes gathered round. “I was heading south, almost across the border from Canada, when my sleigh got sucked into some kind of a magic thunderhead! Old Wilhelm’s cloud buster out there gave me and the reindeer one heck of a ride! And you should’ve seen how Rudolph’s nose lit up when he passed through the orgone energy accumulator!”
Kids at that party probably would have gotten fixated at Stage Two and had a hard time progressing. But even they, sooner or later, would enter Stage Three: the years of Serious Wavering. Their hearts would still be into Santa Claus, but their brains would be catching up.
I do recall struggling in this stage on a winter’s night in 1963. “So, there’s probably a guy way up north with a big, long list,” I’d think to myself before I went to sleep. “But flying reindeer? And elves who can make Barbies just like the ones in the store?” And then I started worrying if maybe Santa heard me thinking like that. Just in case, I decided I’d better wait until next year to figure it all out.
1964 was the year my mom bought an honest to goodness Santa Claus Trap—a plastic red and green version of something a mountain man could’ve used to snare a bear. The contraption sat open in our fireplace during the days before Christmas until, lo and behold, we awoke Christmas morning to find it clamped onto a piece of….Santa’s pants??!! Mom was pretty bothered that he was riding around up there with a hole in his britches, but I wasn’t. I knew right away the stuff caught in the trap matched the red velvet dress she’d just finished sewing for me. But I didn’t want to spoil her fun, so I lingered awhile longer at Stage Three.
By 1965, I’d faced up to the truth about Santa. My maturity was rewarded with a stack of presents half the size of Christmases past. I was about the same age my young friend Amy was when she informed me she knew the guy in the red suit was her dad all along. Translated, that meant she wished she would’ve kept her thoughts to herself for one more year.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! Believe and be blessed.