I confess. I killed Santa Claus on Dec. 25, five years ago when my daughter Laine was just 6 years old.
It was a negligent homicide that started with my little girl’s blood-curdling scream.
The howling snapped me out of an early-morning slumber. As I came down the hall, Laine sprinted into her bedroom. I looked at the presents she had scattered around the Christmas tree and realized we’d had a “Big Santa Gift” breakdown.
Ever since my wife, Devonne, was a child, her family saved the Big Santa Gift for Christmas morning, after friends and relatives exchanged presents the night before. We revived the ritual when Laine was born.
The Big Santa Gift, of course, was the most ardently desired, colossal, brag-to-your-friends-at-school present – and ironclad proof that The Big Guy really does exist.
On that dark morning, though, there were no gifts from Santa for Laine or her 4-year-old brother, Sam. Somehow, in our wrapping frenzy, Devonne and I had labeled everything “From Mom and Dad.” And that year, for the first time, Laine could read the tags.
As I took the long walk to her room, I knew Santa had to die if he wasn’t dead already. This would be a funeral for a piece of childhood. I decided two rules would guide me: 1. I would not minimize Laine’s feelings, and 2. I would not lie.
Laine was face down on her bed. I sat next to her. She rolled over, eyes red and puffy.
“Daddy, have I been bad?” she asked, as tears rolled from the corners of her big brown eyes into her ears.
“No, Pumpkin, you’ve been wonderful.” I started bawling. Rule No. 1, no problem.
“Then why didn’t Santa leave a present for me?”
When existential Santa queries had come up before, I usually answered with a question or switched subjects, the kind of passive lies and distractions that keep the myth alive. Maybe that was wrong.
Regardless, I couldn’t do it again.
“Because there’s no Santa,” I said. “Adults are Santa. Mom and I get the Big Santa Gifts out after you and Sam fall asleep. We just messed up the name tags this time.”
This revelation so astounded Laine that she stopped crying.
“So what happens to the cookies?”
“Mom and I eat them. It’s how we get paid for the Santa gifts.”
The murderous deed was done. Laine started to cry again, just a little. So did I.
I reached for a eulogy. What if, I asked, we couldn’t afford to buy Santa gifts? Would we still be happy at Christmas to have family and friends? Aren’t they really the biggest gifts? How hard would we cry if we lost each other?
Laine recalled that her best friend’s father had died shortly before the girls met in kindergarten. “If she could pick to have her dad back or all the toys at Toys R Us,” Laine said, “she’d pick her dad.”
We dabbed our eyes and wiped our noses. I apologized for the mistake and for the bad news.
Then my little 6-year-old gift put her small hand on my leg and gave a Christmas pardon for my crimes.
“It’s OK, Dad,” Laine whispered. “But let’s not tell Sam. He still believes.”