I wasn’t ready. No one is. I was sitting across from my 9 year old son in a breakfast diner. I had just slurped down a welcome bit of coffee and was waiting on my waffles. Suddenly, he said, “Mom, okay, you need to be a 100% honest with me: Is there really a Santa?” This was in May. What kid asks this question in May? Maybe November when thoughts of sugar plums begin to dance in their heads but not May. This wasn’t the first time he had asked the question but I’d somehow dodged the bullet. That was in December, closer to the ubiquitous thoughts of Christmas and I was ready for it. Or at least, I was wondering if my then eight year old still believed in Santa. So, I had a rough answer prepared. But the May query caught me off guard and so, I decided in the space of 2 seconds a sacrifice had to be made to throw him off the trail. So, I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Santa, is totally real. The Easter Bunny is not.” My husband, startled, looked up from his smart phone and gave me a look of what have you done ?!?!?! Which was followed by my son saying, “What?! But, everyone at school thinks the Easter Bunny is real!” Are you kidding me? While everyone was discussing the existence of Santa in his Gr. 4 class, apparently the Easter Bunny was off the discussion board because a 7 ft bunny that randomly hides chocolate for the amusement of children for no apparent motive, unlike Santa who has a moral undertone to his actions, is without question real in the minds of nine and ten year olds. Go figure.
I guess a kid in his class had found unopened toys identical to those later received under the auspices of “Santa”. He threw the class into a tizzy with his suspicions and I was left dealing with the aftermath. I had sincerely thought the first mythical creature under suspicion would be the Easter Bunny because of the gaping hole in his back story. Santa and the Leprechaun have loads of tales to corroborate their existence but the Bunny seems to pop out of nowhere and he has absolutely nothing to do with the spiritual gravitas of the coinciding Christian observances. The Easter Bunny is just fluffy lore to pun it nicely. Mental note: children are easily fooled or at least their reasoning can be abducted with a few tasty morsels of chocolate; plan to lay out more chocolate around Christmas.
At this point you’re probably wondering what I told him to make him believe in Santa. Well, it wasn’t that hard because some part of me really does believe in Santa. The story I told him was evidence of some grander magic embodied by the man in red and it began like this:
When I was ten years old, we were living in a trailer on a First Nations reserve in Alberta. This trailer was on loan to any teacher that wanted to live on reserve while they taught at the school, which my Mom did. She was teaching special education, meaning they had cleared out a storage closet, stuck some desks in it and she tutored any student that had special learning needs. The teacher trailers, as they were known, were relatively cheap to live in compared to the nearest town or city, which was Lloydminster, an hour drive away. The major downside to these derelict trailers were the infestations of mice. The trailers had never been properly sealed or if they had, there were now multiple entry points from the outside. Trailer row was occupied by only one staff member from the school, that being my Mom and the rest of the trailers were occupied by band members since no roof was to be left unoccupied on a reserve with chronic housing shortages. It was a testament to my mother’s economic situation which was more distressed than the average teacher at the school. My step-dad was chronically underemployed and she being the only earner, we lived paycheck to paycheck. The cheap rent made the money go further, even if the extra cash went into my step-dad’s pocket to play Bingo – one of his few pleasures and social outings that didn’t entail binge drinking.
Anybody who has lived in a mice infested home knows the first thing one learns is to never, ever trust a box of cereal or crackers or anything that can be chewed through by hungry mice teeth. Upon pouring out the cereal into one’s bowl, you find a disappointing array of rice shaped black droppings and you curse yourself for having left the box lid opened. One morning I found a half drowned mouse in the left opened honey container. Being ten, I took this opportunity to place the distressed mouse in a cage we had kicking about and decided to give it water, some food and grass to bed on. The mouse spent a long time trying to clean its fur but the grass kept sticking to it and it was a miserable mess. My mother came home and demanded the mouse be returned outside which I dutifully did. The reserve had various packs of roaming dogs, the teacher trailers being a popular spot for one group because of the readily available scraps pitched by a concentrated group of inhabitants. Most homes at that time were built several miles apart but as the number of people grew and the economies of running infrastructure to groups of homes made more sense, rows of homes became more common. I remember putting the sticky, sweet mouse outside and the pack of dogs sniffing and following the curious bonbon. I didn’t wait around to see what happened.
I had a curious dream at that time, one that entailed my head being entangled in something and me trying to disentangle myself. In the morning I found mouse droppings all over my pillow. The mice were getting bold. I decided I would try to catch them. This was more for fun and to rid myself of boredom. I propped a box on a stick with a string tied to it, left some food under the box and waited on the other end of the string. My trap was set in the middle of the kitchen floor. This usually never works because mice try to stay to the perimeter but by this point they had the run of the house. I caught one, two, three, four, five. It stopped being fun and I went to bed hoping they wouldn’t join me.
Christmas was on the horizon and that year my niece came to stay with us. My step-dad had a daughter in her twenties and she had a four year old daughter. It was fun having a younger kid to play with after my older sister had left home the year before. It also made Christmas seem more exciting because Santa would have two reasons to visit. On Christmas morning, we had a plethora of gifts and the most memorable were the 4 ft cloth dolls we each were given. I’m pretty sure that Christmas was special for my niece too because if I thought my life was hardscrabble, it was nothing in comparison to what she had and would eventually experience.
A short time later, I don’t recollect how the conversation started, maybe I was asking my Mom if Santa really existed, my Mom admitted to me there had almost been no gifts for Christmas. She told me that as we sat in the motel room in Lloydminster, the load of groceries bought and the overdue bills paid, just a few days away from Christmas, she had just $30 left. We were driving home the next morning so she decided to give my step-dad his Christmas present – the last $30 to play Bingo. There was probably two reasons for this, one to keep him at the motel for the night so he wouldn’t ditch us to go drinking and two, to chance a bit of luck. Well, he got lucky – twice. He won $700 that evening and so they decided to keep the room another night so my Mom could buy presents the next day. He went back to play the next day and won $500. This was 1988 and that was A LOT of money back then. My step-dad had also lost a lot of money at Bingo but that one time, the most important time as far as I’m concerned, he won. As my Mom told me this story, as disturbed as I was that our fate could have been much worse and that it also implied Santa had not directly given us these gifts, I felt – no I believed powerful magic had enabled my step-dad to win. From then on, my understanding of Santa matured from the jolly fellow that swoops down the chimney to the spirit of something much larger than ourselves, the cumulative understanding of something good and holy that pushes us to do better and create magic for the downtrodden and vulnerable. We were not a Christian household, so the birth of Christ never factored into this epiphany but as I’ve grown older, I recognize the spiritual duality of Jesus and the Santa lore.
When I told this story to my son, he nodded his head knowingly and looked relieved. Children understand magic. They understand it inherently and we have to protect it when we are trying to make sense of the world. I feel a bit bad about killing the Easter Bunny. My husband secretly admonished me that night, after the kids had gone to bed. He told me he believed in the Easter Bunny for a long time. I think a tiny part of him still does. In future I need to be more careful in guarding those mythical creatures that inhabit my home for they also inhabit my family’s hearts where they embolden the imagination and fortify against despair. For what is more precious than faith whether it be in a God, the universe, or in a red nosed, grizzled old man? Who am I to judge.