When my wife and I were anticipating our first child, my father demanded that I allow our son to believe in the magic of Christmas. He insisted. He was sure that Mr. Practical Realist would steal away the wonder of the season.
Well, I messed up.
My son was 4 when he came to the conclusion that the jolly old elf was dead. It isn’t that he didn’t believe in Santa. He actually believed that Santa was deceased.
By this time, my son was borrowing five books a week from the library. I am convinced he holds a record for youngest library patron to utilize the inter-library loan system. The first book we read that night concerned legends, people and events that carry on in our imagination through the stories we tell. The book used Robin Hood as an example. That was all well and good, until we moved to the next book: The Legend of Santa Claus.
As I read the title, I noticed my son had a strange look on his face. It was the same look he had made when he realized that the sun was a star. The book was a classic take, the story of a fourth century Greek bishop, St. Nicholas, remixed with some Victorian magical realism.
My son stopped the reading. “Is Santa a legend?” he asked. I could feel the heat off my forehead. My Christmas goose was cooked. “So he’s dead.”
If anyone was dead in this situation, then it was me.
I spent the next few weeks in a special kind of hell worrying that my son was going to tell all the children at his pre-school that Santa was dead. I awaited a phone call from a teacher or a desperate message from an exasperated parent.
Instead there was nothing.
Perhaps he forgot. My kid forgets things. He forgot that pizza was once his favorite meal — even though, now, for some reason, he claims to dislike all cheese.
One day my son said he wanted help writing a Christmas list. I breathed a sigh of relief. He sat at the kitchen table and dictated.
The first thing my son wanted for Christmas was “a sled.” I wrote it down. He was generally scared of sledding. We pulled him around, but he had no interest in going downhill. Perhaps this was a turning point. The plastic sled in the garage didn’t impress him. He wanted a bigger model, maybe something with brakes. I could work with this. The second thing he requested was “a bag.”
“A bag?” I echoed.
“Yeah, a bag.”
“A bag.” I wrote. “What kind of bag?”
“A big bag to put lots of stuff inside.”
“Okay. Got it.”
Next he threw me a curve ball. “I need a fence.”
“A fence?” I looked at the list. We had a sled, a bag, and now a fence. “Where are you going to put a fence?”
“In the front yard. So the reindeer don’t run away.”
It was at that moment that I realized the sun was a star. With complete sincerity, my son looked at me and explained that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to become Santa Claus.
Later that night, my wife and I traded intelligence reports. She had heard similar plans. There had been a car ride where my son questioned her from his car seat about what reindeer eat.
We agreed to bide our time with the hope it would all go away. Except it didn’t go away. My son started casual conversations with, “When I become Santa Claus…”
With complete sincerity, my son looked at me and explained that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to become Santa Claus.
I couldn’t help but think that his friends so desperately believed in Santa that he somehow wanted to make the magic happen for them. The idea was so in the spirit of the season that I couldn’t shake it. I sat awake at night pondering how I could get a reindeer.
I made a plan. I would dress up my son. I would get him a red suit and a fake beard. We would drive around in the car and visit neighbors, elderly shut-ins, the local animal shelter, and give out presents; maybe drop off some canned goods at a food bank.
Whenever he idly mentioned his plans to become Santa Claus, it was clear that my plan wasn’t going to cut it.
My son’s wishes were simple, specifically involving a sled, a big bag to put lots of stuff inside, and reindeer. He wasn’t interested in peace on Earth and goodwill towards Man; he wanted magic. He was eager to provide us all with the wonder of the miraculous. He started asking about seeking directions by the stars.
I’d like to tell you that I dressed my son up.
And we scaled a roof.
And we broke into houses across the neighborhood.
And we left behind gifts.
But we did not.
I thought deeply about it, but we would have been arrested. In my fantasies, I snuck away to my son’s bedroom while my wife was sleeping. I tapped him on the shoulder to wake him. He rubbed his eyes and looked up at me dressed as an elf, complete with pointy shoes and a bell atop my floppy hat. “It’s time,” I said.
We rushed into the night to find the deer I pilfered from York’s Wild Kingdom.
But none of that happened.
This is a true story, and the truth is that we bought him a sled, a bag, and some reindeer. They were plastic. He played with them for a bit before the season changed and the Christmas items were packed away in their boxes to reside in the basement or the attic.
Before you pass judgment, I want you to understand that this might be an anti-climatic ending for you, but not for me.
This is the story of a dad who wanted to share the magic of Christmas with his skeptical son only to have his son become Santa Claus. I spent many nights sitting up and pondering the things my parents did to keep the magic alive. The cookies that were left behind and presumably consumed. Sleigh bells heard in the middle of the night. As much as I am Mr. Practical Realist, I relished in the magic of the season as a child, and, for a few weeks as an adult, I plotted ways my son and I could herd reindeer in our front yard.
As adults, we only play at being Santa, but my son embodied him. He brought the magic back to me. He was my Santa Claus.
I hope some day my son has the opportunity to truly deliver on the wonder of magic. I worry though. He really is Mr. Practical Realist. This is the kid who, at the age of 4, declared Santa dead. I will be sure to make some demands if he is ever lucky enough to have a child of his own. I will insist.
John Herman hosts the monthly writers’ meet-up the first Monday of the month at Portsmouth Book and Bar. He is a New Hampshire Writer’s Project trustee and was behind the creation of New Hampshire Writers’ Week. His son Emrys, age 6, wants to be a magician. Not when he grows up. Like, right now.