darkness in late November comes at 5 o’clock.

we four emerge into the damp gloom, make our way to the end of the block where the street is cordoned off. we are bundled within an inch of our lives, ridiculously so given the unseasonal warmth, the threatening rain. little family throngs are gathered already, waiting, clustered on lawnchairs and under blankets.

the annual town Santa Claus parade.

Oscar has a blinking red nose, a party favour sent long ago by WhyMommy. it is his prized possession: during the long wait, all ants in his pants, he runs up to neighbouring children and adults with upturned face,  imploring them to admire his Rudolphesque visage. most comply. if you’re willing to sit through an hour of flatbed trucks and farm machinery strung with lights to ring in the Christmas season, a three-year-old with a blinking nose is an obligatory smile.

a little boy behind us, perhaps a year or two older than O, wears a red velour hat with white trim. he nods to the nose, then announces his own festive adornment. i compliment him, ask him if he’s excited. he explodes with fervour.

it’s SANTA! he nearly shouts, beaming into Oscar’s face. SANTA’s gonna come!!!

Oscar pulls himself up conspiratorily, so he is as near to eye-to-eye with his new friend as he can get.

Santa’s not REAL, he declares.

i die inside.

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i still remember, vividly, the day i found out about Santa. i was in kindergarten, not quite yet five, in the back of somebody’s big ol’ seventies car stuffed with children. before car seats, car pools were huge.

from the bench seat ahead of me, Robbie Trainor’s freckled face popped up. Robbie had older brothers; he knew things.

he dropped the bomb.

all four little girls in the back seat were eldest children, each of us cloistered darlings who until that moment had presumably never questioned the verity of the jolly fat elf. mouths hung open. not one of us said anything; rather, an embarrassed kind of silence spread over the car.

i don’t remember anything else: not debate or tears or whether the adult driving said a word. in my memory, the moment is utterly internal, an invisible tectonic shift.

a child’s first cognitive dissonance.

from that day on, i thought of Santa as a story, not a man. but i was an only child, a private kid who felt things deeply. i did not know how to speak the things that made me uncomfortable. and so when my mother cheerfully made reference to Santa that Christmas, and the Christmas after, i performed; i went along pretending i knew nothing about the grim reality, the void that was St. Nick.

i thought my mother believed. and i did not want to ruin that for her.

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the moment the words leave Oscar’s mouth, my lips are in his ear, stage-whispering, it’s not POLITE to tell people that someone they believe in isn’t real.

i realize i’m hoping the other kid’s parents can hear me. i realize i’m hoping the other KID can hear me, and i consider tacking on something like, Santa is the spirit of Christmas! in my chirpiest voice.

mostly i realize i’m wondering how the hell my kid became THAT kid, destroyer of worlds, the one who goes around flatly bursting the most cherished notions of others.

oh right. that was us.

i don’t think we’ve ever said outright to Oscar that Santa isn’t real. but we’ve never said he was, either. and we likely won’t. we’ll play along, to an extent…but Christmas for us is all about a constant negotiation of stories. if i had my druthers – and we lived in either a bucket or a truly multicultural big city – i might get away with the sixties secularized version of a warm fuzzy Christmas, where we’d celebrate with candlelight and food and The Grinch and maybe some Alvin & the Chipmunks. except we’d all gather ’round our non-existent piano and i’d raise the roof with my glorious contralto version of O Holy Night, my grandmother’s favourite carol.

instead, Oscar plays a lamb in the Sunday school play this year. and his parents, the agnostic and the atheist, will likely tag along to kneel in adoration at the livestock by the creche, while his faithful grandmother praises god at the sight of all of us in church. he’ll get a daily dose of Santa every day at preschool, just as he has for the past two weeks anyway, and we’ll open an advent calendar with Playmobil knights hidden behind it, a purely materialist construction if ever there was one. for the holidays themselves, we’ll hang out with his Jewish cousins and exchange gifts for what they call International Present Day.

he’s never asked about Santa. i’ve asked him what he knows, and told him the legend of Saint Nicholas. i’ve sung him Away in a Manger and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. i’ve told him Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also a holiday where a lot of people like to get together and have special times with their families. i’ve told him that in the darkest months of the year, most people like to celebrate one way or the other, and share gifts with the people they love.  he has a stocking and a dreidel and a blinking red nose.

and apparently a complete and total disbelief in Santa Claus.

a part of me feels that as failure, and another part as success. and the rest just wonders how i can get him to respectfully hold his tongue on the subject so that we don’t get run out of town by December 24th?