Growing up in southern Ontario, I can still remember standing on the edge of my bed, face pressed to a frosty window, watching for a blur of red in the sky; and listening for that “prancing and pawing” on our rooftop. We were well outfitted to greet Santa. Our house had a large brick fireplace with an ample hearth, wide enough by my childhood calculations to permit entry by any nocturnal visitor and accompanying sack of toys. Life was simple and magical, and shone with an innocent clarity. But, that was the Christmas that everything changed.
I can’t put my finger on the “aha” moment from all those decades ago, but for some reason, like an apprentice detective to the Hardy Boys, on that fateful day, I began to piece together the clues that would lead ultimately to the inevitable discovery of the ways of the world, and the loss of something precious all at the same time.
It was one of those Christmas mornings, frozen in time, that melt together into an amalgam of memory. The rules were hard and fast. No-one could disturb the household until 8 a.m. (which seemed unbelievably cruel given that my cousins, who lived up the street, were always up and at their presents by 5). At eight, we three boys would gather and knock gingerly at our parents’ bedroom door. My mother would get up, always a bit grudgingly and proceed downstairs to put on the tree lights (with the requisite “Oh my goodness!” drifting up the stairwell to ratchet up our collective excitement even more). She would then put on the coffee and putter around for what seemed like hours, before my Dad would appear from the bedroom in robe and slippers and proclaim that we could now proceed to the living room.
It was a mad dash.
Careening down the stairs, elbowing to be in front going through the door, my brothers and I tumbled into the living room vying to be the first to scope out his own little corner of paradise; an over-flowing stocking surrounded by an array of unwrapped Santa presents. While the carefully wrapped family gifts, from one another, waited patiently under the tree, we tore into the wonderful bounty that waited, poised, no, maybe cowering, in expectation of being grabbed and tossed and bandied about as we each endeavored to prove whom Santa liked best.
On this particular Christmas morning, my older brother Sandy (much more savvy and worldly than me) was happily dumping out his stocking and making pronouncements on each tumbling treasure. “This is nice”, “Expected this.” “Mom? Socks again?!” It had never occurred to me before, but both Sandy and I invariably got pretty much exactly the same things in our stockings, stuffed in precisely the same order – socks in the toe, small wrapped gifts in the middle, pencils and rulers (in later life – ice scrapers) stuck out of the top. Why, I wondered given how much nicer I was than he was, would Santa choose to give us the same gifts? Surely, I was much further up the list in terms of quality control. It also occurred to me, that fateful morning, that each and every item in my stocking (with the exception of the socks) was for sale in my father’s store – even down to the “flat fifty” of cigarettes that my Mom always got in hers. A second disconcerting discovery was that Santa had left my little brother, Jeff, a talking “Beany” doll (as in Beany and Cecil) identical to the one that I had seen my mother buy the previous week and that she had told me was for one of my cousins. I then recalled hearing the telltale, squeaky: “Hi, I’m Beany boy” and “Watch out for DJ” as I was going to sleep the night before, far too early for Santa, and still hours before my parents ever went to bed.
The final blow was delivered, inadvertently, by my Grandfather who, as he and Grandma arrived at church that morning, asked me how I liked my new sled (a wonderful gift from Santa) without any prompting from anyone. I stewed about things all through the children’s part of the service and then buttonholed my brother on the way to Sunday School and asked him the big question (he was kind of my own, sarcastic, early version of Wikipedia), “Is there really a Santa Claus?”
I held my breath for what seemed to be an eternity and then he kindly and gently answered: “Are you an idiot? Grow up! I can’t believe that it took you this long to figure things out.” He then gestured over his shoulder with this thumb towards our little brother who was sitting in a snow drift by the sidewalk. “Whatever you do, don’t let Jeff know. He will probably figure it out before you did, but at least give him a few years of ignorance.”
Jeff did eventually find out, as did my older children as the years went by. For me, each of those “discoveries” was as sad as my own. A little loss in the grand scheme of things, but a profoundly important rite of passage nonetheless.
But Santa, like childhood, is resilient. With two young sons and six grandchildren, I now, once again, have been reliving those heady years of mystery and magic. Christmas Eve is filled with the giddy excitement of hanging stockings, leaving cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer (who for us back in Bermuda landed on the back lawn while Santa came in the porch door) and trying to calm down children who absolutely refuse to be anything but over the moon with anticipation.
The last few years, as we have read the “Night before Christmas” together, the story has still rung true as a factual description of the upcoming night’s events, proven out once again – as it has on countless mornings in countless households – to be a predictor of wonders to come.
This year, I know, will be a pivotal one. Morgan, who like me all those years ago, is ten and is the leader of a pack of younger admirers including his brother Quinn and their six little nieces and nephews. After last Christmas, the fateful words came out of his mouth – nonchalantly, but with a pointed edge of keen interest. “Dad”, he said, “I know that there is no Santa Claus, or tooth fairy, or Easter Bunny.” As my heart sunk, I casually replied in my best deflective style, “Well then, whom do you think brings you presents?” “You and Mommy”, he quickly replied. And that was it. I mumbled something about his confusion about the “facts” and then retreated back into my book, hoping that the topic would miraculously disappear. But I saw in his eyes, what I had felt in my head at his age, a mixture of triumph and disappointment. He would now be a member of the myth-makers, a role that has its own joys and rewards, but he would never really feel the magic again.
That was a year ago. He and I have established an easy truce as we both weigh the consequences of his self-revelation. Subtly, online sites are shared with me with things highlighted, television ads are drawn to my attention, and the build up to Christmas has become slightly more clinical. But, no matter what he suspects (or knows) Morgan is too smart to truly tip his hand. Meanwhile, the excitement for his younger brother is still building up like an electric charge waiting to power the whole family through the wonderful, memorable, loving excesses of the holiday season.
For me, there is only one thing that I am still dreading. I am afraid that, given Morgan’s discovery, this might be the year that I have to tell my wife Rheanne, that there is no Santa Claus!