Our oldest daughter came into our room this morning and asked, "What do you think Santa would like this year to drink with his cookies? Last year I gave him gin, but I don't know if he likes that." (For the record, it was actually Teacher's blended Scotch, but at eleven she can be a bit confused as to the types of liquor.)
What's odd about this is that we've never made any particular effort to instill belief in Santa into the children. They put out their stockings on Christmas Eve and those stockings are filled and presents appear under the tree. However, presents all say "Mom & Dad" on the "From" line and we've never made any effort to spin the tale of Santa coming down the chimney with his sack of toys.
They're heard it, of course. It's on the radio, in movies, and repeated by neighbor kids. A couple weeks ago one of their friends from down the street was over with a print outs of the iPod Touch that she wanted. "My dad says he'd never buy a present for me that expensive, so I'm counting on Santa," she explained. (The kids later asked me if Santa would give them an iPod Touch. "No," I said.)
The results has been the kids deciding for themselves. Our oldest expresses a seemingly sincere belief, though at eleven I'm fairly confident it's feigned. The second is a determined skeptic. The rest span the range.
I've been somewhat bemused to see this range of belief spring up, since I myself was a determined Santa skeptic as a kid. Questioning and literalistic, I was the sort who demanded to know how Santa visited houses without chimneys, how he could move fast enough to visit every house, how he knew who was good and bad (this was before the Santa Industrial Complex deployed its goose-stepping hordes of elves to the shelves of the world to spy on everyone), and why was it that he gave presents exactly like the sort of thing Mom and Dad would give? My parents, who have both enjoyed Santa traditions as kids, were hesitant to lie directly in the face of this onslaught, and pretty soon it was admitted that if Santa couldn't go everywhere, probably parents helped him. "That means he's not real," said four-year-old Darwin. "I knew it."
I was eager to provide everyone with this new-found knowledge, and I became the Richard Dawkins of Santa-ism (not to mention the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny) at school. In third grade our teacher was reading us a book (at this distance I can't recall what it was) and when she reached a section where the main character's older brother revealed that Santa didn't exist, she skipped a few pages and picked up after the Santa incident. Out of the 43 kids in the class, I was apparently the one reading along in the book (and annoying enough to make a stink about it) because I was the one whose hand shot up and who blurted out, "Why did you skip the part about Santa not being real?"
The teacher temporized, a girl burst into tears, and in the end I was sent to the principle's office.
For the longest time, however, I remained somewhat convinced that St. Nicholas really was the one who put chocolate coins in our shoes on the night before his feast day. First of all, it seemed dangerous to question the actions of a real saint. And secondly, I'd conducted an experiment which proved the existence of St. Nicholas. There were some half-Jewish, half-Protestant kids who lived in the next apartment over and were a source of envy because they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. However, they'd never heard of St. Nicholas. Figuring this was a great opportunity so see whether St. Nicholas's presents were the work of my parents or not, I talked up St. Nicholas to them and convinced them to put out their shoes on the evening of December 5th.
They did, St. Nicholas delivered, and I remained convinced for a long time that he really was the source of candy in shoes on his feast day. It wasn't till years later, discussing this with my mom, that I heard the explanation for this. The neighbor kids had talked up their St. Nicholas expectations to their parents, the parents had been afraid to disappoint them, and so they'd put candy in the shoes. Yet another worthy experiment destroyed by a tainted sample.