There’s nothing like a team of animatronic flying reindeer to make a child’s eyes light up with Christmas cheer.
We were in a run-down mall in Allentown for some routine shopping with my sister’s family when we rounded a corner to find a version of the North Pole normally seen only in 1960s-era Christmas specials. Tommy, my 3-year-old son, turned to me with eyes so wide that I could see the whites all the way around. “Look, Mama! Reindeer!” he shouted. His 1-year-old brother, Seth, swiveled his head like an owl’s as he tried to see everything — the giant evergreens surrounded with piles of fake sparking snow; the elves making toys; Rudolph and his push-button-activated light-up nose.
And in the center of this Christmas wonderland, on a shiny red sleigh big enough to seat a dozen elves, sat the man himself: Santa.
I don’t remember ever believing in Santa. I remember loving Christmas, I remember looking forward to piles of surprise presents heaped on the hearth on Christmas morning, under stockings bursting with gifts. I remember being entranced by the mystery of it all.
At my house, Santa gifts were always the best gifts, because they were usually the biggest and best gifts of a Christmas. Also, they were never wrapped, so my sister and I could get right to playing with them without any preliminary steps. All a very important part of Christmas morning.
One year, my sister and I received matching stuffed polar bears, dressed up for Christmas in little holiday sweaters and scarves. Another year, my Santa gift was a My Little Pony doll house with everything a My Little Pony family could need, including a bathtub, a dining room set, and a cradle and bottle for any My Little Pony babies that might result from the toys “playing house” together.
But I don’t remember ever really thinking those gifts came from a strange old man in a red suit who slid down our sooty chimney once a year to leave me treats. I’m not sure I ever believed in that version of Santa — not really.
We have one picture of me, at about age 3, sitting on Santa’s lap at some mall. I do not look thrilled to be there, and frankly, Santa looks a little uncomfortable himself.
Honestly, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Santa. As a child, my lack of true belief never made me sad. I loved Christmas and I loved the idea of Santa — as a symbol of anonymous giving — but I never missed thinking that real reindeer would land on my roof.
Now that I’m a mother, my boys and I read stories about Santa and talk about him, but I had never taken my boys to see Santa. The idea of paying upwards of $30 to have the kids’ pictures taken sitting on a random man’s lap just seemed creepy to me. And Tommy, for his part, had never asked.
And then, there we found ourselves: In a mall, faced with the Santa dilemma. After thoroughly inspecting the North Pole set and spending a good 10 minutes lighting Rudolph’s nose, Tommy turned his attention to Santa.
I glanced at the lady behind the photo counter and asked the price of the pictures. The cheapest package started at $18 for one 5×7. My face must have fallen, because she hastily added that the children could visit with Santa for free.
Tom stood off to the side of the sleigh, watching Santa warily. He inspected the man, from the tip of his fuzzy red hat to the toes of his black rubber boots, and seemed to find nothing lacking. Santa waved and smiled, and encouraged Tom to come and sit on his lap. Tom held his ground, toes right at the edge of the tile floor, staring Santa down.
Finally, Tom’s cousin Jeremy broke the ice and went to sit on Santa’s lap. As he recited his list to Santa, Tom inspected the sleigh, which was covered in shiny red and green balls.
When Jeremy slid from Santa’s lap, Tom pounced.
“Do you know it’s almost Christmas?” Tom asked, rapid-fire, like the bad cop in a TV police procedural.
“You have to give toys to all the boys and girls. You have to ride the sleigh. It’s almost Christmas!”
Santa smiled absently. “Yes, yes, it’s almost Christmas,” he said.
Tommy took a step closer.
“You have to come in our window, because we don’t have a chimney,” he continued. “But it’s not Christmas yet. It’s almost Christmas.”
“What do you want for Christmas?” Santa asked.
“I want … I want … Batman Happy Meal Toys,” Tom answered. “But it’s not Christmas yet.”
Later that night, Tom recounted his adventures to his father. “And I went to see one of Santa’s friends today!” he said of his visit. “He even had a real beard!”
I couldn’t understand. Santa’s friend? Just hours earlier Tom had acted like he believed the mall Santa was the one true Santa. He’d practically Mirandized the man when he grilled him about his Christmas Eve plans.
Maybe the failure to be a true believer is genetic. Or maybe the idea of a one true Santa doesn’t gel for him because he’s already seen so many contradictory versions of Santa — from the animated Santa that Mickey Mouse hangs with, to the living men sitting in the mall each December. Or maybe, like his heroes — his father and Batman — Tom is just obsessed with digging out the truth.
But whatever he believes, I’m not asking, and he’s not telling. That should keep at least a little Christmas magic in our home for a few more years.