SPOILER ALERT: Please keep from young, innocent eyes.
The rumors may have started with a couple of avant-garde students in first grade, but they were swiftly crushed by popular opinion. They began to take hold in second grade, and beliefs started to sway. What started with whispers turned into small-group discussions, and before we left for Christmas break, the class was approaching a 50-50 split. "It's not true. He doesn't exist. There is no Santa Claus."
In December of 1972 I was among the 50 percent of second graders who still firmly believed in Santa, and was outraged that there could be any differing opinion. My belief was so strong, I was sure I saw Santa's sleigh being led by Rudolph and his red nose, high in the night sky on the walk home after Christmas Eve mass (probably a plane on the way to Midway airport). In December of 1973, however, the tide had turned and I was leaning heavily towards disbelief. My family tried valiantly to convince me otherwise, and kept fanning a small pile of embers that once had been flames.
When I learned that my brother John and I were scheduled to visit my Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill and cousins for about an hour on Christmas Eve, I grew suspicious. A quick survey of the presents under the Christmas tree looked as it always did. There were presents from Mom to Dad, Dad to my sister Susan, and all the normal permutations you would expect. Of course there were no presents from Santa because in theory he wouldn't come until the middle of the night. So I incredulously accompanied my brother, and while I always enjoyed visiting my relatives, I kept asking when we could leave. It was mostly to see him look at his watch and calculate if we had been gone long enough.
When we returned home, I immediately went to the living room. Miraculously, Santa had come early, and there were now presents from him under the tree. Everyone told me how I had just missed him, what a shame. Now I smelled blood. I started to carefully inspect the presents from Santa, carefully turning them over. I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for until I found it. One of the presents was missing a piece of wrapping paper. It was a very unique shape, and I began to search the whole house. Eventually I found a piece in a basement closet. It appeared to be the same color, size and shape. I snatched it up, went upstairs and felt like Sherlock Holmes as I confirmed it was an exact match. Feeble explanations of Santa putting the presents in the basement while Mom vacuumed up the fallen pine needles left me unimpressed. I had them, and they knew it.
Just then "Santa" came through the kitchen door. It was obviously a man in a suit. I say this because at first sight, my heart leapt and I thought maybe I was wrong, maybe it really is him! But then I could see the rubber band that held the fake nose and beard in place, stretching around the imposter's head. My heart sank again as my suspicions were irrevocably confirmed. Santa was telling me how sorry he was, that he had just missed me and that he was still in the neighborhood. I really didn't hear anything else he said, I just kept staring at the rubber band. Without fully realizing what a colossal brat I was being, I reached out, pulled his nose toward me, and let it snap back in place. Time stood still. The whole room was shocked, especially Santa, and he quickly made his exit. I heard my Dad talking to him outside before coming back in to deal with me. It was his best friend, a man who had always been wonderful to me. It was the end of innocence, and I was ashamed.
Eleven years ago, I had just been married and I celebrated Christmas with my wife and new seven-year old stepdaughter named Yuni. They hailed from Guadalajara. Yuni started second grade here and it was her first White Christmas. I was in heaven, experiencing Christmas through the eyes of a child. A year later, she heard all the same third-grade rumors and demanded the truth. I couldn't bear the thought of only spending one "magical" Christmas together. I looked her straight in the eyes and flat out lied. Later, when I told her the truth, she was furious with me.
Yuni, I hope you understand -- if not yet, then soon.
Merry Christmas Everyone!