"Mommy, is there really a Santa Claus?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because [mean brother of best friend] and [neighborhood bully] said there isn't!!"
"Do you really want to know?"
Of course I didn't really want to know, but I also didn't want the bigger kids thinking I was a baby for believing in Santa. I was seven. Every year around Christmas I think about this conversation with my mom. It's as fresh in my mind 31 years later as it was the day we had it.
My best friend and I were playing outside when [mean brother of best friend] and [neighborhood bully] rode up on their bikes, laughing and pointing and calling us babies.
"You're babies!" they said. "Only babies believe in Santa Claus."
Then they rode away.
I looked at best friend, then turned and went in the house. (I certainly wasn't gonna cry in front of anyone. Especially the big kids.) Finding my mom in her bathroom, I asked the dreaded question. Instead of a direct answer (which my parents normally provided) I was given the option. Did I want to know, or not? I shook my head and walked away.
I was (and still am) anything but a whimp. I endured the taunting and teasing from the big kids all the way through Christmas that year. Best friend and I secretly confided in each other - we believed. Kinda. Sorta. Maybe? Neither of us able to fully commit one way or the other.
The following Christmas I knew the teasing was coming again. Only this time I was going to be prepared. Before the first mention of the Big Guy from the even sassier big kids I went to my mom.
"Mom, is there really a Santa Claus?"
"Are you ready to know now?"
Exhaling very slowly, I shook my head. "Yes," was all I could mutter. Then holding my breath, I waited for her response.
"Yes, Lisa. I think there's a Santa Claus."
I almost fainted! I couldn't believe my ears. There was a Santa Claus and my mom just confirmed it. What was I so worried about? Then she continued. Uh oh!!
"You know the man in the red and white suit that you see at the mall?" she asked.
"Yeah... Santa!!" I almost yelled.
"Well, that's not really Santa," she continued.
What? How could this be? Just seconds before she'd confirmed there indeed was a Santa Claus. Now she's telling me the Big Guy who's lap I sat on every year confiding my secret holiday wishes to WAS NOT Santa?? Was this someone's idea of a bad joke?
"Then who is he?" I stammered.
"I don't know and it doesn't matter," she said.
How could it not matter? I was more confused than ever.
"Honey, the image of a plump, rosey cheeked man in a red and white suit is just that - an image. It's what the image of Santa means that's important."
"Uh... what do you mean?"
"What I mean is Santa is all about giving. Every time we give - presents, or help, or comfort, or compassion - we are acting like Santa. So, everyone has some Santa in them, but they don't all run around in red and white furry suits." Then she asked, "Does that help you understand?"
At the age of eight, I wasn't sure I really understood. Although I was pretty relieved to know that even if the man in the furry red and white suit at the mall wasn't the real Santa, he still kinda sorta was. In a roundabout way. Over the years I've recalled her words and have seen what she told me to be true.
Some day I will be having the same conversation with WJ.
But not this year.