When the Darwin children tore the wrapping off their Christmas presents last week, they bore tags like "From Mom and Dad" and "From Grandma" but not "From Santa". Santa has never made an appearance in Darwin family mythology, primarily because I was one of those aggressively skeptical children who refused to suspend disbelief in Santa starting around the age of 3 or 4.
I pestered by parents with questions: How does Santa get into houses without chimneys? How does Santa really know if people are good or not? How does Santa visit all houses in one night? Why does Santa seem to give the same sorts or presents that Mom and Dad would?
My parents didn't want to set a precedent of lying to their children, so I quickly sensed that the answers they gave me were highly qualified. "Maybe if Santa can't reach all the houses, he lets parents know what he would give and so the parents deliver the presents for him."
I smelled a rat and zeroed in for the kill: "There isn't really a Santa, is there? It's just a story that parents tell children."
Why go to all the work to spin stories for a child who insists on cold reality? Santa died: not with a bang, but with a whimper. Feeling in my youthful heart that I had now overturned one of the great frauds in history, I worked to spread the word. Other children, however, seemed less interested. Other adults were also not necessarily as free thinking as my parents when it came to unmasking the Santa game. In third grade I was ordered to the principle's office for blowing the whistle on our teacher, who had skipped over a few pages in the book she was reading aloud after lunch -- in which the main character's older sibling informed him that Santa was just Mom and Dad. Our teacher must have thought we still needed to be spared this harsh reality, and the rest of the class wasn't bothering to read along and didn't notice the skipped pages.
"Now why did you do that?" the principle, our one remaining nun -- and not a very severe one -- asked. "You teacher says one of the girls in your class was crying."
"It's true," I responded, dogmatically.
Sister sighed and told me to sit in the chair outside her office for half an hour and then go back to my classroom.
Now, in our family, there were three gift holidays in the lineup. On St. Nicholas Day cookies and chocolate coins and such showed up in our shoes, placed there by St. Nicholas. On Christmas there were presents and stockings, and on Epiphany there were one or two small presents in celebration of the Three Wise Men.
I'd quickly driven Santa from Christmas, such that my younger siblings never even heard of him, except as a pop-myth which other families believed in. However, I was much more hesitant to question whether St. Nicholas really had anything to do with the little presents that showed up in our shoes. I think it's mostly that I was worried it would be disrespectful to publicly question a saint.
Eventually, at around age six, I performed an attempt at a double blind test which for the longest time suppressed my willingness to dig further in that regard. The Jewish kids in the next apartment over had, of course, never heard of St. Nicholas day. When I realized this, I started talking it up to them (get candy before Hanukkah!) and encouraged them to put out their shoes and see if candy appeared. I figured that if it really was St. Nicholas, then he would know the shoes were there in the next apartment over, and the candy would duly be delivered.
Sure enough, candy appeared, though theirs was marked with pictures of Menorahs and the Star of David. Years later, my mom recounted to me that the kids had talked it up so much to their parents that they had figured they'd better provide candy lest the kids be disappointed, so the Hanukkah candy was dipped into early. (Another experiment foiled by the inability to control for all factors.) However, it was several years more before I dared directly question whether the saint was directly involved in delivering St. Nicholas Day treats.
Learning Notes Week of April 24
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