This story is by Gordon Bell and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
It was the night before Christmas. It had been snowing all day. Without expecting it, I got the question I had prepared for.
“Daddy, is Santa Claus real?”
I put my newspaper down and looked my youngest boy in the face. “Go get your brother,” I said.
I knew how I was going to handle this. I would immediately tell the truth. It would be, I had always thought, easier for all involved. My wife didn’t like it. She tried fixing an age to when they should know. Nine and ten, she had said. But I wasn’t having any of that. By then they would probably have sneaked puffs on cigarettes and gotten high on beer.
Marcus was six and a half. His brother, Teddy, two months shy of eight. And since Marcus, the youngest, asked first, Teddy was going to have to know, too. There was no way out of that. It was the price we now paid for having had them so close together. There were no secrets between them. So I allowed myself to take my strong – and as my mother said, callus – position without any more thought.
We still had a daughter who could live under the fantasy a little longer, a fantasy that she had latched onto, at three, with awareness and abandonment. Santa was going to bring her a doll she could dress up and push around in a stroller. Santa was, also, going to bring her books and gum. I have my sister to thank for my baby’s gum addiction, which my wife and I tried instilling in our daughter as wrong. But ever since she could talk, gum stayed as a frequent request. Maybe we wouldn’t have to answer the Santa question when she saw that Santa was never going to bring her any gum. She would probably just drop him and find other ways to score.
But for now, I was maybe a little too happy that one of my boys had asked. I figured it was time my wife and I get the hard-earned credit we deserved for all the things they got on Christmas day – the toys, the candy, the fun! Why should Santa get that credit when a parent should start immediately building capital with their kids? As it was, he was stealing the most important time there was for doing that.
My brother and I were the same ages as my boys, with me the youngest, when the “Santa tale” was brought up on a snowy, Christmas Eve. Like my youngest son, I had doubts. Since I found this evening too coincidental, I figured it had to be an omen or something. Let the chips fall where they may if they told their little friends what their dad had told them. I just wasn’t going to be bound to some other parent’s need to keep the hoax alive. In anticipation of getting the question early, however, my wife and I joked about moving to the woods and home schooling until age kicked in. So tonight, I sat prepared for years of indoctrination to be blotted out with just one word.
The year I couldn’t stand one more moment of believing happened when I was seven. That spring before Christmas, my eight-year-old brother Mark and I sat out on a log behind our house pining for new toys. Mark couldn’t wait until Santa brought him trains he had already started asking for.
“I don’t believe in Santa anymore,” I said.
“That’s ‘cause you’re dumb,” he said angrily.
His anger surprised me.
“Why ya getting so mad?” I said standing up. “You heard what Bosco and them was talkin’ bout when we were playin’ with ‘em that day. There ain’t no Santa Claus, that your mom and dad get you your toys. I believe it.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re stupid,” Mark said. He jumped up and pushed me to the ground.
“Stop! You ol’ mangy dog!” I yelled. “Your ol’ Santa ain’t bringing you nothin’.” He then dived on me. We tussled. I yelled more, “Stop, Mark! Stop it!”
But to no avail. When Mark started wrestling, stop was a word he no longer heard. Knowing this, I began to match his energy with my own. We laughed as we wormed around in the leafy dirt. We fell apart, jumped up, and like little bears assumed our positions. Mark rushed me, putting me in a headlock.
“I can’t breathe,” I said.
He squeezed harder.
I reached up and punched him in the back. Our tussling grew wilder. My irritation morphed into anger. As far as I was concerned, the fight was on and we fell back to the ground. Mark knew that he could beat me. But he also knew that when I got mad, I became a worthy opponent, which I had now become.
When we had worn each other out, we fell apart and sat on opposite sides of the log retreating to inner corners within ourselves, not liking each other at all for the time being. Had we been caught, that would have meant real trouble. Our mother hated when we fought. She seemed to hate it more than when one of us got caught in a lie.
“You’re brothers!” she would yell. “You shouldn’t fight!”
We sat on the log and looked at each other as if we couldn’t believe the territory we had just blurred through, with me thinking all of this over Santa Claus. We knew, too, that this would not be our last journey to knucklesville. We just sometimes made each other too mad for that to ever happen. We said nothing for about two minutes, which seemed like a long time.
“You want to go down to the pond and catch some tadpoles?” Mark said, tired of the distance that had grown between us, a distance caused by Santa Claus, whose very thought made my head want to force itself to stretch beyond capacity trying to figure out how he did what he did.
“No,” I said, still angry. “I’m going home.”
I walked away from the log. Mark ran to catch up with me. He put his arm around my shoulders and whispered, “Santa Claus is real.”
“Get off me,” I said. “You and your ol’ Santa are gonna rot in hell.”
I immediately felt bad. Not because I cursed, which Mark and I and our friends did with fluent regularity, but because I felt I had gone too far. I had sent Santa, real or not, with his hot, furry, red and white suit to a fiery hell, where only Mark, right now, should be. I had to get away from it all, so I said, “I’ll race you home.”
We didn’t talk about this anymore during the year.
But I was more than convinced that my brother belonged in a fiery hell that snowy Christmas Eve my father, Mark and I were sent to the store to get some extra things for my mother’s Christmas dinner. On the ride home, our father asked if we were ready for Santa Claus.
Mark said, “John doesn’t believe in Santa.”
Sitting between Mark and my father, I tried breaking one of Mark’s ribs with my elbow.
My father said, “You don’t believe in Santa, John?”
I wanted to yell out – No, I don’t believe in Santa! How can someone fly around the world in one night and bring everybody toys, and who brings the poorer kids in our neighbor toys nobody should want! But I didn’t. Fed-up with it all, I just said, “No, Dad.”
My father smiled gently and turned his attention back to the road, his smile lingering on his face. I gained freedom from his smile that night. It was okay to keep on living.
When Marcus brought his older brother back into the room, I said, “Sit, you guys.”
They sat at my feet looking up at me. I found myself searching for nerve.
“Teddy, Marcus asked me if there was a Santa. Tonight, I’m going to tell you guys. No, there is not. He’s just a wonderful thought designed to keep kids enchanted before you grow up. But when you ask if he’s real, then you’re grown up enough, and you should know the truth.”
Teddy started to cry. No rebuttals or anything. Just tears. Marcus looked at me and shrugged his shoulders.
“Let’s get our coats,” I said.
I took them out to the field in front of our house. Holding my youngest on my back, the oldest to my heart, I found the strength to carry them through the snow to the end of the field.
“Now, let’s race back,” I said. In the moonlight, they raced; I walked, and was teased for losing.
Inside, our family sat in front of our brightly lit Christmas tree for cookies and cocoa, and my only wish for Christmas was that this truth, that had shocked, had, by now, made itself at home.