I can’t remember at what age I stopped believing in Santa Claus, but I know there was certainly an absolute end date and that was the Christmas of Grade 4. My family went back to Peru for the first time since moving to Canada and my father told us we weren’t getting anything at Christmas because there wouldn’t be any money for presents. I remember being upset about it and he said “when we go to Peru, you’ll see people who have nothing.” I’ve always remembered that.
Ava is now in Grade 5 and I was pretty certain she didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, but just to be sure, I thought I’d break it to her well before Christmas with a little help from my old writing mentor, Alistair MacLeod, and his short story To Every Thing There is a Season. The story, like many of Alistair’s stories, takes place in Cape Bretton just before Christmas. The story is told by an adult narrator, reminiscing on the Christmas when he was 11 years old. Alistair was a master craftsman who showed great economy of language. He said he never revised anything and meticulously went over every sentence to make sure it was right the first time. Here’s the opening paragraph of the story, every sentence is perfect particularly the last two:
“I am speaking here of a time when I was eleven and lived with my family on our small farm on the west coast of Cape Breton. My family had been there for a long, long time and so it seemed had I. And much of that time seems like the proverbial yesterday. Yet when I speak on this Christmas, 1977, I am not sure how much I speak with the voice of that time or how much in the voice of what I have since become. And I am not sure how many liberties I am taking with the boy I think I was. For Christmas is a time of both past and present and often the two are imperfectly blended. As we step into its nowness we often look behind.”
A family of seven children in Atlantic Canada is awaiting the arrival of the eldest son, who is working on a ship on the Great Lakes. The work halts when the lakes freeze and the brother races home to be back in time and he’s sent presents hidden in boxes through the mail disguised as his clothes. There are so many great passages in this story, I feel like I could quote the whole thing as something relatable but this is the passage that made me want to read it to Ava:
“I am troubled myself about the nature of Santa Claus and I am trying to hang on to him in any way that I can. It is true that at my age I no longer really believe in him, yet I have hoped in all his possibilities as fiercely as I can; much in the same way, I think, that the drowning man waves desperately to the lights of the passing ship on the high sea’s darkness. For without him, as without the man’s ship, it seems our fragile lives would be so much more desperate.
My mother has been fairly tolerant of my attempted perpetuation. Perhaps because she has encountered it before. Once I overheard her speaking about my sister Anne to one of her neighbours. “I thought Anne would believe forever,” she said. “I practically had to tell her.” I have somehow always wished I had not heard her say that as I seek sanctuary and reinforcement even in an ignorance I know I dare not trust.”
Ava fell asleep halfway through the story, (which reminded of something Alistair said about writing No Great Mischief – he said his wife woke him up one day and said with a wink, “it’s one thing if you fall asleep reading this stuff, but if you fall asleep writing it…” ), something she’d never done before, but we got through the rest of it the next night.
The older brother arrives safely from Ontario, he takes his siblings to mass by horse and sleigh and afterwards the family sits for dinner. After dinner the younger kids go to sleep:
But tonight my father says to me, “We would like you to stay up with us a while,” and so I stay quietly with the older members of the family. When all is silent upstairs Neil brings in the cartons that contain his “clothes” and begins to open them. He unties the intricate knots quickly, their whorls falling away before his agile fingers. The boxes are filled with gifts neatly wrapped and bearing tags. The ones for my younger brothers say “from Santa Claus” but mine are not among them any more, as I know with certainty they will never be again. Yet I am not so much surprised as touched by a pang of loss at being here on the adult side of the world. It is as if I have suddenly moved into another room and heard a door click lastingly behind me. I am jabbed by my own small wound.
I finished the story and said, “did you get it? Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
There was no reaction from her, so I said. “Who brought the presents in the story?”
“The brother, he sent them in the boxes.”
“Right,” I said. “Do you understand where your presents come from?”
A look of understanding came over her face and she said, “I knew it! I knew the writing on the tags looked like your handwriting.”
I smiled and gave her a hug and we both laughed. “Yes. It’s my handwriting on the presents.”
All of a sudden the edges of her mouth curled downward and she covered her face in her blanket and started bawling uncontrollably. She didn’t know. A few seconds later, she calmed down and looked at me, a sad smile on her face. She said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why I did that.”
Right then I witnessed her cross that threshold where childhood wonder was left behind and it broke my heart a little. But I gave her a hug and kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her and told her it was still important she not spoil Christmas for her little brother. Afterwards I was glad she found out from me and not from some random kid at school. And I was glad I had such a wonderful story to help me tell her. I’ve felt indebted to Alistair for many years for his help and support, and he’s still helping me. While I don’t remember exactly when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I’ll remember exactly when Ava stopped believing.