Originally uploaded by o&poecormier

last year he called him “Yaya.”

this year, the words trip from his mouth with more ease, and he notes the red hat and beard with an enthusiasm that takes me aback, makes me wary. “Santa!” he squealed in the grocery store last week, when we happened across a blow-up display of the jolly old elf. i wonder where this delight sprang from and for the hundredth time i simultaneously blame and thank his sitter for doing the normative work of acculturating my child whilst his father and i shrink and critique and dither. and then my brain skates off, wondering about this Santa fetish encouraged in the preschool set, this strange semi-magical, semi-materialist construction of Christmas, this incessant “what will Santa bring you?”

last time he was asked, he said he wanted a Christmas hat. he’d just taken the one in the photo off minutes before. i don’t think he gets it, what this fat man in red is supposed to represent. i don’t know if i get it either.

i was not quite five yet when i found out about Santa. a boy in my kindergarten carpool had an older brother and thus, i guess, a mainline to truth. i don’t remember any longer why i knew he was right, why i believed him and not the elaborate fabric of myth. he was a redhead, that little boy, a freckled face that popped up from the bench seat at the front of a car whose other inhabitants and details escape my memory…a spitefully gleeful freckled face that shouted “Santa’s not real! Grownups buy the presents and eat all the cookies!”

i believed him, but i thought my mother truly believed in Santa, and so to spare her feelings i said nothing, not a word, and dutifully dictated my letter to the North Pole anyway.

two Christmases later she sat me down to explain, very gently, that Santa was only the spirit of Christmas, of giving, of the gift of Jesus to the world or however those two are supposed to relate and i said, “i know” and i think we both looked at each other a little oddly and that was the year i woke up Christmas morning to the longed-for Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces courtesy of the Sears’ Christmas Wishbook and a mother who’d been unsure if my father’s cheque would show up in time, and the ruse of Santa Claus fell into disuse in our house after that.

my childrens’ parents are faithless, their closest cousins Jewish.  they will never experience full immersion in Christmas a religious holiday.  Oscar goes to the church nursery most Sundays with his Nannie, and the lesson of “different people believe different things,” is what i hope he takes out of it all in the long run…because i have nothing more certain to offer, for myself. we have an advent calendar, but mostly for the chocolate and to try to help him understand that holidays change with the seasons and Hallowe’en is, alas, over until next year.

and yet we decorate our tree and we will celebrate Christmas in our own way, where what is holy is the quiet of the dark season and the time with family and maybe all the bounty of food and treats and holiday baking, and Santa will elbow his jolly way in there no matter what we do and maybe the baby Jesus too and all i can hope is that some of it is magic for the children somewhere along the way and that, at least, we give them to believe in.
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whatever your belief system, if you are in the English-speaking world, how do you explain this inescapable, hegemonic holiday to your kids? what do you think they make of it?