A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

Winter Landscape voted Most Beautiful Stamp of the Year 2006 in  Finland

Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message that could have been postponed.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions that would have led her to the same truth and not hurt so much?

Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize that it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”

It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination, the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.

Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge that I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.

But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

4 thoughts on “A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

  1. Every parent that “tells the Santa lie” is at that very moment, setting their child up (and themselves) up for the day the child learns there is no Santa. Yes…the parent is directly lying to the child…and the dealer of the pain.
    Life will inevitably deal it’s hard knocks in time, but the Santa lie is disgraceful and I personally see no “good” reason to tell it.
    There are many ways to teach and display the “spirit of Christmas” in giving and receving.
    The child will soon enough be “let down and disappointed” by human beings, and situations in life, and it is then that the parent can be there to soothe the pain that is part of life.

    Would you tell the “Santa lie” if you had it to do again?

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    • Your comment is appreciated. I think there is an argument to be made for the illusions and fantasy that are a wonderful part of childhood and that parents support by maintaining the “Santa lie.” That said, if I had a simple answer to this issue and to your question, I would give it to you happily. I don’t.

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  2. This poignantly took me back to 12/24/1993. My son was eight years old and I thought he had figured out (somewhere in that cute head of his) the Santa Claus story. I was stunned when he asked that same question as he was going to bed on Christmas Eve. Bad timing, kiddo! Like you, I was caught. How do I answer? The truth or let him have this one last year? I chose the truth because, in that moment, I thought he was testing me. I figured he knew the answer and he wanted to know if I would tell him the truth so I did that as gently as possible. He was amazingly upset. He cried and cried and cried but all out of earshot of his little sister. So I pulled that out and talked to him about how now he got to be part of this secret and play along for his sister. I don’t know if that was such a good idea as it sort of pushed him maybe to be older than he was ready to be. Whatever. I did the best I could do and we all survived.

    I can see where the other commenter is coming from with the notion that the whole deception is “disgraceful” but there is a lot to be said for imagination, and wonder, and appreciating the mysterious in life. If I had it to do over again, I think I would play along with the story but I might have Santa play less of a role. He used to leave several gifts but papa and I gave the “big” gift (the bike, the special doll). The thing they most wanted came from us. If I were to do it again, Santa would bring the art supplies or the book. He would be there but not so much.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Poignant indeed, JT. I imagine we are not the only two parents on the planet who reached the same fork on the same road. For what it is worth, Immanuel Kant says we always have the duty to tell the truth, no matter what. I have the feeling he never was asked the “Santa” question!

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