Dec 17, 2015

Santa: out of the Chimney, into the fire

"M told me the truth about Santa, you know." he mumbled from atop his bunk bed. I only caught the glint of wet eyes because he was above my eye level.

"What Truth about Santa?" I asked, nimbly skirting accidental disclosure.

"His mom said she bought the Santa gifts. And Baba said yes too in the car when I told him…I knew it!!!" he said in a voice wobbling with indignation and grief.

My little human's despair has never before taken my breath away like this. I should have expected it though. In the two years since his suspicions about the Tooth Fairy were confirmed (at age 7), he's been stewing over the Santa Question. 
Innocent conjectures about Santa's data source for naughty/nice (special radar? Magic Sonar?) and alarm-proof home entry, have given way to more astute queries. For instance, last year's LEGO set was obviously not Elf-made so Santa must have bought it but then, who pays Santa?! Did the LEGO company maybe donate? Then how could they pay their bills and stay in business? His eerily organic understanding of market forces means my flighty answers just aren't making the grade.

Saint Nick's distribution model has also been suspect. Oyon's been on many international flights and though he's flummoxed by the International Dateline ("But Time's not a thing, how can you LOSE it? Where did Thursday GO?!"), he’s well acquainted with travel logistics. The idea of an elderly gentleman doing it solo in a reindeer-pulled sleigh has suffered a severe attrition of credibility thanks to his experience. 

Add to that his increasing mistrust of the curators of his world (us), whose feet of clay are showing. When I outed the Tooth Fairy, I had worried that her associates in the imaginary world might have been handed their pink-slips. Scaling and porting new concepts from situation to situation is the only way kids figure out the world (raising that constant background hum of activity in their minds that leads to the epic lack of focus). So by all reckoning, one imposter magical figure throws all magical figures open to doubt. But his urgency to know the Tooth Fairy truth was compelling and the stakes low. It was easy to choose to retain his trust in us by coming clean. We were well rewarded by his glee at the revelation and continued joy in Tooth dropping traditions (the monetary recompense helped). Inspired by it, in an earlier session of cross-questioning about Christmas, I even threw Christmas stockings under the bus ("Yup. That's us! Busted!") to shore up my obviously shaky credibility. 

With Santa though, it was different. I could sense it. 

It's a tad puzzling too, since Christmas is a mild celebration in our Indian household, an affectionate nod to our adopted culture aimed primarily at populating our American son's cultural landscape with baseline memories. We make an effort to be festive but don't perpetuate many sentimental Christmas traditions since our Indian childhoods didn't give us with many. Oyon however, seems to have imbibed the full blast of its magic on his blank slate of experiences, undoubtedly through cultural osmosis. We try to preserve it's integrity and draw out his joy.

So every time he has asked me in the past “Is Santa real? Do you and Baba buy the gifts?” I instinctively, somewhat worriedly, punted the question.
“What do YOU think?” I’d respond

“I think it’s YOU! But am I right?” he’d ask anxiously. He was never twinkly-eyed and excited like with the Tooth Fairy. I got the impression that he was bracing himself.

My fallback has always been “I can't say for sure, Oyon. It's like the God question: it’s up to YOU to figure out what you believe in”. This is a well trodden path for me now. Taking it has even led to some memorable discussions, like the one that came to... “I don’t like imagination in science”.

It almost made my head explode (for crimes against Science, not God) and went something like this:
Oyon: I don’t think God can be real, Mummum. There’s just NO proof.
Me: “Yet.” There’s no proof “yet”. Or that YOU know of.
Oyon: I know, I know! People didn’t know about bacteria until they invented the microscope. But they know NOW! And they haven’t found God under a microscope OR in chemicals OR in x-rays and things.
Me (choosing to skirt rationality for once in the interest of fostering tolerance for other ways of thinking): Yet millions of people over thousands of years of Human existence have believed in God and found Peace.
Oyon (puzzled): Ok, so they liked it but without really KNOWING for sure.
Me: Well, if people feel good without proof, through only their belief and without hurting others….isn’t that a good thing?
Oyon (hot and bothered now): But they’re using their imagination to make up things! That’s for stories! I don’t like imagination in science!
Me: And without an imagination, would scientists be able to think about things they can't yet see or find new ideas for research?
Oyon (resigned): Yeah. I guess. But I still need proof. I don’t believe in God.
Me (just wanting to mess with him now): “Yet.”

But that was then and this is now.
Tuesday night, perched on his top bunk, he continued to ache in the aftermath of the Santa expose.

I asked him as gently as I could, “If Santa really was made-up, how would that make you feel, Oyon?”

“Like Christmas isn’t special at all” he said in a tiny voice, curled up under his fluffy green blanket, hugging the oversize Giant Carrot pillow I made him for his 4th birthday (when fantastical things were still sacrosanct sources of delight). 

“I’m going to rename Christmas 'Gift Exchange Day' ” he said tearfully as my heart completely crumbled. Like his.

Reality is waiting for him in the wings, I know, so I decided it was time he learnt how to self-soothe and reclaim Joy from disappointment. I took a deep breath and summoned all the manipulative skills I possessed.
“Oyon, can I just point out one thing?” I asked with feigned excitement in my voice.
“What?” he snuffled
“You said M's mom said she was Santa. For him. So...does this prove Santa doesn’t exist AT ALL or.... that he doesn’t come to THEIR house?” I asked, tickling his Rationality in the ribs.
He sat up straight at that. “Oh. Right. But I told Baba in the car and he said I was right”
“Perhaps he agreed that M’s mom was Santa in their house. I don't know, you'll have to ask him." I countered with a shrug, pretending I didn't care too much.
“I still think you're Santa” his droopy-again face countered
“Maybe. But what makes you happier? To think we are (without any proof, by the way!) or to think Santa’s real?” I asked casually, trying not to perjure myself whilst gently tickling his bone for adventure.

He hugged his Giant Carrot and thought for a few seconds as his face slowly brightened and his cheeks dried.
“I think I’m going to still believe Santa’s real so Christmas is fun" he said carefully. "And so other kids don’t feel bad. And the proof thing. I am SO BUSTING YOU this year!” he added, the old twinkle back in his eyes.

“Be my guest! IF there’s even anyone TO bust!” I snapped back, cocksure and careless.
“On Christmas Eve Baba and I will be busy wrapping our gifts for you and drinking lots of wine. We won’t have time for traps for some guy who may or may not be flying all over the world. Ugh! Who’d want THAT job anyway? Not me!” I trash talked.

Oyon gave a sleepy, happy chuckle and started mumbling about his plans to get us again. He’s told me about 10 times so far what they are – always with the disclaimer that it’s so secret that we’ll never guess. (I’ve said this before: no future in the CIA or professional gambling. Or politics.)

I stroked his hair as his eyes closed, my heart contracting with the realization that my distraction tactics not withstanding, I’d just witnessed him deliberately pick belief over reason against his nature. He's showed me proof of this instinct before, when he spun the news to extract more good news from headlines to feel better. Given how critically he usually thinks, I'm actually relieved that he has occasional recourse to faith instead of always being at the mercy of soul-sapping reality.

There is such a long line of similar self-delusion stretching away into his future.
After all, we choose to lie to ourselves every time we overlook unintended hurt from a loved one, every instance when we know we have been used but decide it was worth it (it probably wasn’t but it can't always be changed so lest pick Peace).
We suspend our doubts and cling to unreasonable Hope every time we vote for new government, trusting that campaign promises will trump self-preservation.
We pick Faith over history with every self-improvement scheme we embark upon.

Learning to lie to ourselves is learning to Hope, learning to Live.
My kid just learnt how to do this. I couldn’t be prouder, sadder or more at Peace.

A must watch piece that has this idea at its core but is funny as all get-out:

Oyon-ism (9)
On the drive back from school....
Me: Hey, I'm trying to write a blog post about our God and Santa conversations. You know, "Are they real?" and all that. I hope I'm remembering it all correctly.
Oyon: Well, it's all about the approach.
Me: Hmm?
Oyon: You've got to first approach it with Belief, then, with Science.
Me: Remind me again, how you do that?
Oyon: Well first you try to believe in something and see if it works. If it does, great. You're done. If it doesn't make sense then you try the Science approach.
Me: So believing doesn't mean you don't ask questions?
Oyon: Yeah! It's got to make sense, right?
Me: Ok. And the Science approach? That's trying to prove things?
Oyon: Yup. Most of the time that's the best way.
Me: And some times?
Oyon: Sometimes, you just Believe.
Me: That's what I thought. Thanks for clarifying.
End of conversation on the week that Santa got outed. I'm learning to leave 'well enough', alone.

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