The mermaid gave it away. She was Mermista, trusted ally of She-Ra, Princess of Power. She had a snap-on tail, a spray-action necklace and enough silky blue hair to smother her enemies. My letter to Santa had been explicit: This buxom plastic nymph was my soul mate. There were other toys I wouldn’t mind seeing under the tree, but this was the one—my Red Ryder BB Gun in green go-go boots. I sealed the envelope with a kiss and threw it on the fire. Dad said the ashes would drift up into the night sky and reassemble into a personalized smoke signal for the man in red.
So when I found myself staring down at Mermista’s beautiful, unblinking face three weeks before Christmas, I was thrilled—at first. Jeanne and I had been on recon all morning, running wild through the house hunting for presents not yet wrapped. She checked the garage while I combed the cellar under the stairs. No toys stuffed inside the long winter coats. No chocolate goodies stashed behind the card tables. I sat on the floor and twisted bits of carpet between my fingers, staring at the outline of the crawl space. I was barely 7 and didn’t know if I could even lift it, but it pulled up easily. Like a crown jewel, Mermista topped a pile of treasures. A few were wrapped with tags already signed. To: Erin/From: Santa, Mr. Claus, Jelly Belly.
I agonized for hours, debating whether to bust myself. But more odious than any punishment was the thought that Santa might, like the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny before him, turn out to be my parents. I had to know.
Mom didn’t miss a beat. She told me there were so many kids and so many toys that even with an enchanted sleigh, Santa couldn’t possibly fit everything onboard and deliver all in one night. He “pre-delivered,” so he could pop down chimneys and kick some ass. I wanted to believe her. But over the next few days, reality settled on my shoulders like lead. She found me under a glass-topped coffee table staring at the ceiling. Crushed.
“You came out with your big blue eyes and said, ‘I really wish that Santa really was the guy in the red suit,’” Mom says. She remembers the long talk we had about the spirit of Santa, the real aspects of the unreal. When I ask why she didn’t just level with me the first time, she says: “The truth is, I was thinking that no matter what it looks like, there is a Santa Claus. It’s the belief in magic, the faith.”
My mother has thought a lot about Santa, starting with her therapist telling her she has a complex named after the jolly old soul. She wants everyone to have everything, so much that she feels related to St. Nick, both the man and the myth. The man lived during the time of the Roman Empire in a province that is now Turkey, according to William J. Bennett’s The True Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was born to rich parents who were childless for many years. They left him a fortune, but he entered the priesthood (hence the red outfit), hoping to do some good. He did enough of it to be sainted.
The legend that grew from his life says Nicholas dropped gold pieces in the windows of unfortunates. One of them caught him in the act, and the story snowballed into the rosy-cheeked, white-bearded fantasy many know and love. In studying it, Mom has read essays by C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton as well as Richard Dawkins, a scientist/atheist who argues children “should be raised only on truth, reason, fact and intellect.”
“You don’t have to give up one for the other,” Mom says. “I have felt that it is my duty to help people not lose their faith in Santa. And what that really means is not to lose their faith in the mystery of life, where the seemingly impossible is possible. What I essentially said to you was that there was a Santa and that he was coming, whatever shape or form you imagined. And you expected him to come.”
I still do.