How I Discovered The Truth About the Fat Man in Red
Covering up a Christmas tragedy in the name of presents.
I remember in excruciating detail the moment I stopped believing in Santa Claus. The realization came over me in an instant, the quick cover-ups by my parents had the lid blown open, my mind flashed back to every chat with that jolly old guy during my short life, and I came crashing back to reality, holding a present, to me, from Santa, on Christmas Eve.
My parents, younger sister Abby and I had made the long drive from Warren to my grandparents' house in Michigan a few days earlier, and we had already taken care of the important things: we found a place for our stockings, helped my aunts and cousins bake a million cookies, and wrote to let the Claus' know where we would be for Christmas this year. Being in Michigan meant cable TV, all we could drink Capri Sun, and being swarmed by family, friends, neighbors, and baked goods. I was 6 or so, Abby a year younger, and everyone else at least 10 years older. We were the babies, we were spoiled rotten, and we loved it.
The Christmas tree was set up in the dining room, and the presents began to pile up. Between the huge family and chronically over-generous aunts, the spread was growing to obscene proportions. When we drove from Rhode Island, we brought along our gifts, pre-wrapped and ready for the tree. As everyone else made their way over, they did the same. On Christmas Eve, one aunt, who lived right up the street in the sleepy little town, brought her haul over to be put under the tree. I helped, being the good little doobie, and began carrying armfuls of gifts through the kitchen to deposit them with the others. After a few trips, curiosity kicked in.
I had a knack for finding and guessing presents. Earlier that year, mom told me to look for a birthday present on a day home sick; she regretted it when I walked down the stairs with my new ballerina doll a few minutes later, still waiting for her button eyes to be sewn on. While I wasn't peeking inside these boxes, I was trying to estimate what might be inside, and I naturally had to find what presents had my name on them. The ones in my arms weren't for me – useless. I bent down casually, I didn't want to get caught sneaking around, and I saw those all-important 7 letters: T-o E-l-l-e-n. Bingo! Then I looked closer. From Santa? How could this be? He should still be in the North Pole! I had a full out, Hollywood style montage of chats I'd had with Santa over the years, the letters written, my parents' answers to questions, everything clicked into place all in that instant.
Throughout the rest of Christmas Eve, I kept my mouth shut, unsure of what my plan of attack should be. I had noticed that typically, parents got fewer presents than kids. Could this be because they knew the truth? I didn't know if I was the only kid who knew the real story, and there was no way I was risking my presents. When I woke up to a full stocking and an empty plate of cookies the next morning, I got my first lesson in faking the Christmas spirit. I said I had heard the sleigh land on the roof, and I did see the eaten cookies and empty glass of milk. As we opened presents I exclaimed with fake joy when I found one from Santa, though I now noticed how no one even tried to change their handwriting or use different wrapping paper. I didn't know if my cousins knew, even though they were much older, I thought I might be the only kid in the world who knew the real story. I never spoke the truth, and I guess it worked; I'm still making out like a bandit, year after year.