The toy store was open late and packed tight as Barbie's third marriage Dream House. I squeezed in. The crowd looked to be mostly young hipster parents with kids in tow. They'd come to see Santa Claus.
And he was late.
A dad, balancing a toddler on his shoulders, talked music with another dad doing the same. A cluster of moms held tiny coats shed by children who had sprawled out on the floor to build block towers and toy cars. I felt as if I'd crashed a private cocktail party where I knew no one and the bar served nothing but juice in boxes. Then a little girl in a fancy red dress hippity-hopping from foot-to-foot shouted, "I see him! I see Santa!"
And, suddenly, all was merry.
Sappy seasonal sentiment is the high fructose corn syrup of emotions. Still, I willingly indulge in the stuff even as I wonder why each December we conspire to hoodwink the kids.
It's true. We lie. And it's not a little white lie, but a big, complicated, tangled web of deception. The lie permeates small towns and big cities, crosses ethnic and economic boundaries. It includes families, friends, neighbors, advertisers, animaters, retailers and pretty much anyone who has something to sell.
I'm not complaining about the crass commercialism of Christmas. I don't begrudge anyone trying to make a buck in this economy. I don't even mind that the nondenominational Claus often outshines Christ as "the reason for the season" because, Lord knows, solstice celebrations trump them both on tradition.
No, I am simply awe-struck and gob-stopped that this plot on tots actually works. How does a nation that demands a choice of 187 variations of coffee every morning come to a consensus once a year on Santa?
Not everyone celebrates him, of course, but most tend to be at least polite about him. Sure, SantaCon draws scores of red-suited, cotton-bearded, pillow-bellied participants to poke fun at Santa Claus phenomena or, as some might say, to get drunk and be rude. But the event isn't intended for kids. Even the most coldhearted adults who consider small children nothing more than collections of leaky orifices to be cleaned at inconvenient times would have to be some kind of cruel to spill the Santa beans.
And this lying is not easy. We teach kids not to take candy from strangers and then have to work twice as hard to persuade them to sit on some scary-looking guy's velvet lap. We have to learn to gnaw raw carrots in a peculiarly reindeer sort of way to create evidence that Santa and the gang visited. And when some smarty-pants kids question the logistics of Santa's overnight delivery system, we have to get really creative with smartier-pantsier talk of time zones, planetary rotation and Doppler radar tracking of the sleigh on the evening news.
And when the complexity of our fabrications rival the best conspiracy theories, we look at our children and say: Just kidding! You've been duped! No hard feelings?
I'm still smarting! When I was five years old, my neighbor Karen declared there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I scoffed. Obviously, she was never going to see that Patty Play Pal doll she'd wanted. The day after Christmas I could hardly wait to show off my treasure trove of toys, trudging through the snow not to gloat but to encourage her to repent and hold out hope for next year. Much to my surprise, Karen opened the door holding the doll of her dreams.
"Told you so," she said. I was momentarily taken aback. Then I realized that the ever-generous Santa had simply forgiven Karen her lack of faith and delivered the goods anyway. And wasn't that absolute proof of his existence! She looked at me like I was a peculiar shade of stupid.
"I'll let you in on the secret if you promise not to tell," she said.
"The truth is," she said, "your mom and dad are Santa Claus."
What the jingle bells? My mind was blown! Reality was shifting. Finally, I managed to find my tongue and form some words.
"Are you saying," I whispered, "that I am an elf?"
Gradually, it sunk in. The world was full of phonies. By Easter, I was feeling totally jaded. The candy-toting bunny never struck me as particularly plausible, anyway. When I lost my first tooth I slipped it under my pillow for the fairy, but this was strictly a moneymaking venture.
I was nobody's fool.
The following year when Christmas rolled around, I willingly joined the conspiracy for the sake of my two younger brothers just as my three older siblings had done for me.
The whole lot of us sat in church one Sunday before Mass while Mom, demonstrative in her devotion, knelt to pray. She wore a pink boucle suit just like Jackie Kennedy, and bowed her head in a particularly pious way. Nice effect, I thought, quite convincing. But, come on people! Aren't the statues, burning incense and elaborate cathedrals just a little over the top? Hasn't this God story gone on long enough? What's this really all about?
In short, Santa Claus was the catalyst for an existential crisis that has plagued me for pretty much my entire life. So, naturally, when the time came to have children of my own, I thought long and hard about carrying on the tradition-slash-beastly-lie. I considered the pros and cons, weighed the good and the bad, engaged in a fierce, internal, philosophical debate that lasted all the way up until the moment my firstborn looked so darn cute on the lap of a department store Santa.
And so I fibbed. I recalled that, when I was a newly enlightened kid, I chose to keep the myth going for others not because I was sadistic but because I knew firsthand that believing in Santa felt good. It was Santa, not Alfred Lord Tennyson, who taught me that it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It was Santa who reminded me to "Be here now" long before any pop culture guru coined the phrase. Even Nietzsche's Superman couldn't measure up to Santa Claus as the embodiment of being good for goodness' sake. The discovery that it was all an elaborate hoax could never erase the authenticity of that pure, unadulterated happiness, however temporary.
The Claus conspiracy is now in full swing. Toy shops bustle. City sidewalks don holiday style. And somewhere there's a kid jittery-footed in her excitement to see Santa, if only for a while.