What Learning That Santa Isn’t Real Taught Me About Faith

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Dec. 7 2013 7:18 AM

The Santa Conspiracy

My first crisis of belief.

To believe or not to believe, that is the question this time of year. In 2011, Stephen Tobolowsky wrote this personal essay about growing up Jewish in Dallas and learning that Santa isn’t real—but choosing to believe anyways. The original piece is reprinted below. Read Elizabeth Weingarten on spoiling Santa Claus and ruining Christmas for third graders.

Stephen and Dwayne.
Stephen and Dwayne

Photograph courtesy Stephen Tobolowsky.

I have observed there are two different types of fairy tales. There are the good ones, in which loyalty is rewarded with love and kingdoms are granted to simple but honest souls. And then there are the perplexing ones—where the children are eaten, the treasure is turned into straw, and the princess is poisoned and sleeps for a thousand years.

When I was a child, my mother or father read to me every night before I went to sleep. I never knew which type of story I would get. It was a crapshoot. The ratio of happy to horrible bedtime stories became detectible in the frequency of my nightmares. Uncertainty is the subtlest form of tyranny. Eventually, I became afraid of the dark. The product of my terror was a monster that took up residence in my room. His name was Eye the Monster.

Eye was terrifying to me. But occasionally he hinted that his task was not to threaten but to protect. He promised to come out of the closet whenever danger was near. One night when I was very young I heard a noise on the roof that woke me up. I ran down to Mom and Dad’s room for help or intervention if necessary. Mom woke up and told me, “Stepidoors, don’t worry. It’s just a night noise.”

That didn’t help. For all of you new parents out there “night noise” is not an explanation that brings comfort—it was the kind of thing that you would find in one of the bad bedtimes stories. Mom told me to go back to my room and go to sleep. Nothing would hurt me. I was unconvinced. I went back and pulled the covers up over my head. That’s when I heard Eye.

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He called my name. I began to cry. I forced the covers back. Shaking with fear, I got up to investigate. I opened the closet door, but he wasn’t there. Then I heard his voice behind me. I turned. Nothing. Then Eye spoke. He told me he had moved under the bed. He wanted to be closer when I slept. But there was no comfort in that. I was still unsure as to whether Eye was my fear or my savior.

I always wondered what happened to Eye. He was such a constant companion when I was 3, 4, and 5. It took a lot of energy and imagination to create and sustain him. If you believe what scientists tell us—that energy cannot be created or destroyed but merely changes form—what form did Eye change into? Where does our fear of the dark go?

My guess is that somewhere in human history it turned into science, art, and religion: science, to measure the darkness; art, to show us its beauty; and religion, to tell us that light is around us all the time. We just have to believe in it to see it.

During the era of Eye the Monster I tried many things to ease my fear of the dark. I tried science in the form of a nightlight. I tried art in the form of more good bedtime stories. And eventually I even discovered prayer.

I had never prayed in my life. I didn’t even know what it was. But in our first grade reader there was a series of pictures showing what “good” children did. This was important to me. Besides the dark, the main stress factor in my life at that time was the Naughty and Nice List that Santa kept. In the last month, I had opened my eyes during rest period in homeroom and had my cookie taken away as a result. I had to stand in the hall for using my desk as a set of drums, and once, at home, I even made Mom cry. I felt like I was on the verge of falling onto the dark side of the ledger, and I was ready to take the book’s suggestions to heart. Chapter 1 said that a good start to the day was to wash your face; brush your teeth and comb your hair; to say “please” and “thank you”; and at night, to say your prayers.

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