I don’t know if I ever really believed in Santa. I’m sure like all children I once didn’t understand the difference between real and make-believe, so I probably did believe then, assuming I was capable of understanding the concept at all. But from my earliest memories I understood him to be make-believe.

It wasn’t that my parents deliberately told me that Santa wasn’t real. But my Dad wasn’t particularly experienced with kids, and I was his firstborn. He didn’t realize how much I was able to pick up on subtle changes in tone and body language. He had a certain attitude toward pretend games, which he disliked. And he used that tone whenever anyone talked about Santa.

Thus, I grew up with the understanding that Santa was just a game. At least until I was about 7 years old. That was when I started to realize that my friends at school weren’t just playing pretend.
They actually believed that a fat man was literally going to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve with presents.

At first, I thought my classmates were just silly. But this was also the age where I got to watch
Christmas specials. And many Christmas specials feature the idea that idea that Sonia is actually real, but there are a lot of grinchy adults on the naughty list that don’t believe in him. Which did sound a lot like my Dad. Furthermore, Hollywood told me, belief is what gives Santa his magic powers! Failing to believe in Santa actually removes the real magic from the world!

I pondered this idea as Christmas came and went. Obviously, my parents would notice if dozens of presents magically appeared under the Christmas tree every year. Those presents were clearly put there by my parents. Every present “from Santa” seemed to be wrapped in my Mom’s wrapping style with my Mom’s writing on the tag. That was all obviously just pretend. So how could Santa bring me presents? Obviously, he would have to be very sneaky about it.

I scrutinized every Christmas present I had received. Eventually I had a breakthrough! There was a ball-and-cup toy in my stocking that didn’t seem like the kind of thing Mom would buy, because my Mom did not buy garbage. Ball-and-cup toys are known for being cheap, but this one was spectacularly cheap. The tiny plastic ball was hollow, and thus weighed less than the stiff plastic string connecting it to the tiny plastic cup. This made the game essentially impossible. No matter how you swung it, the string was so stiff that the ball would always go in a perfect circle around the loop where the string was tied. I couldn’t even get the ball into the cup by holding it above the cup and dropping it!

While I was trying to make it work, my Mom walked by and asked “Where did you get that?” “From Santa!” I declared triumphantly. She looked puzzled. But I was excited. Could this be a real present from Santa? Maybe Santa snuck me a secret present! Of course, I didn’t tell Mom that. She didn’t believe in Santa, and I didn’t want her to think I was silly. At least not until I was sure.

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I know what happened. While my mom would never buy garbage, her mother-in-law was a real dollar store bargain hunter. She was a regular source of inedible Halloween candy and costume jewelry that turned out to be made of lead. And, while I didn’t know it at the time, when I was older I learned that she regularly brought bags of “goodies” over while we were at school that my Mom would hide until she could go through it and get rid of the garbage and items that would pose a safety hazard.

But my Mom had limited hiding places. She hid the junk from Grandma in the same places as she hid Christmas presents. I’m guessing Dad was the one filling our stockings that night and was sent to various hiding places to fill them. Thus, an unusable toy wound up in our Christmas stockings that night. Mom probably questioned me about the toy out of fear I had been poking around and found her hiding place.

Or maybe that’s just me, as a grinchy, cynical adult, brushing away conclusive proof of Santa’s existence.

Anyway, it turned out the Easter bunny was real too. He hid candy deep in the couch cushions, unwrapped and quite stale. By the next Christmas I was in full investigative mode. In the weeks following Christmas I tossed aside all of the expensive presents that obviously came from my parents (I’m sure they were thrilled) focusing on what could have been slipped into the pile without them noticing. I took out each item in turn, playing with them in front of my Mom. Sure enough, there were two she seemed puzzled by.

I took the toys to my room, comparing them to my store-bought toys to discern proof of elf labour. All were plastic and obviously made in a mould, just like my playdough animals, where you place a ball of playdough in the middle and squish the two sides together. They had an obvious seam down the middle, just like many of my other plastic toys. But, while that seam was barely noticeable in most of my toys, this one was uneven and had blobs of excess plastic sticking out from it. Just like my playdough animals did, before I tidied them up with a little plastic knife. Maybe elves were really busy and didn’t have time to tidy up seams with a knife, or even get them straight in the first place.

Even at this point, I still had my doubts. But I also had a lot of guilt, because the consequences of not believing were overwhelming. I didn’t really care if Santa came or not. I knew there would be plenty of presents for me under the tree either way. But I knew that somewhere out there, there were kids who’s parents couldn’t afford to give them toys. What if this elf-made garbage was the only thing they would get, and my lack of belief put that in jeopardy? How selfish could I be? Believing cost me nothing, and it would help other people.

So, while all of my peers were finally discovering that Santa wasn’t real, I was lying in bed at night desperately trying to believe in him. I remember one night tearfully whispering “Santa, if you’re out there…er…I mean I believe you’re out there…please don’t bring me any more presents, you don’t have to waste your time on me. Bring my presents to someone that needs them.” Believing in Santa, no matter how unlikely he seemed, became a duty, and I felt guilty if I realized I had gone a week without actively trying to believe in him.

Of course, it wasn’t just Santa and the Easter Bunny. Fiction told me there might be magic hiding everywhere, if only I would just believe and not be too cynical to see it. Did I believe in wizards and leprechauns and elves? Not really, but I still tried, even when it didn’t make sense. I didn’t want to be left out of a world of magic just because I didn’t try hard enough. But real belief doesn’t also doesn’t come from trying hard enough. Still, the guilt piled up. The Velveteen Rabbit was the one that really stressed me out. All of my precious stuffed animals could be real if only I believed hard enough? It didn’t matter how slight the chance was that it was anything other than an author’s imagination, that slight chance that they could live when they were otherwise just decaying cloth made not believing the same as murder.

Eventually, when I was ten, my younger brother asked my Mom about Santa, and she sat down and had a talk with him. I heard most of it because he was in the adjacent room. When she was done, she stepped outside, closed his door, paused, and came to my room. She said “I just told your brother Santa doesn’t exist. You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?” I shook my head quietly, and she left, and I was overwhelmed with guilt. Silently I begged the world of magic to ignore my public denial and my doubts, of course I believed, or at least I was trying to believe, and shouldn’t that count for something?

I was well into high school when I finally realized that belief does actually have a cost after all. All of the guilt, all of the worry, all of the trying to really believe and inevitably failing, it all really affected my mental health and happiness. It was exhausting. So I stopped.

I still technically can’t prove that a really sneaky Santa doesn’t exist. That’s the problem with magic, if you don’t understand how it works, you can’t prove it couldn’t be fooling you. If Santa can violate all known laws of science he could make a completely undetectable base on the North Pole and be everywhere at once on Christmas Eve and give kids presents their parents will never notice.

But I don’t think it’s worth believing in. Do you?