Stephen Tobolowsky on discovering that Santa isn’t real.

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

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

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Dec. 13 2011 10:37 AM

The Santa Conspiracy

My first crisis of belief.

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It was a sunny, cold December day. I was heading over to Daugherty’s Drugstore to read comic books before I walked the half-mile home. I heard a classmate call out, “Hey Stephen, where you going?” I turned around and to my surprise it was Dwayne. I usually didn’t play with Dwayne. In fact this was the only time in my life I spoke to him one-on-one. He didn’t live in our neighborhood. He was a very special kid. He had already turned 6, and I imagined him to be a much wiser fellow than I. He was handsome. He always made good grades. The teachers liked him. He never played the bongos on his desk or got into trouble. He was awarded “Best Citizen” of the entire first grade. He was given a blue ribbon by our school. Today, he was wearing his ribbon, pinned on his sweater, and it was flapping in the cold wind. I was shocked when he joined me. Frankly, I was a little starstruck.

As we walked, Dwayne asked me if I was looking forward to Christmas. I gave him an enthusiastic but highly conflicted, “Sure.” Dwayne paused, looked off in the distance, and then turned back to me and said very seriously that he believed in Christmas but wasn’t sure he still believed in Santa.

A fellow skeptic! I didn’t tell him about the presents under the dining room table; I just swallowed hard and told him I was on the fence about Santa, too. Dwayne nodded respectfully and said, “Yeah, it’s hard not to be.” I mentioned that last year I thought I heard something on the roof. It could have been a sleigh.


“Do you have a chimney?” said Dwayne.


Dwayne shook his head, “Well, if you don’t have a chimney, Santa won’t stop on the roof. It was probably a squirrel.”

“Probably,” I said. We stopped at the curb. Dwayne looked both ways for approaching traffic. I blurted out, “Dwayne, I just really want to believe in Santa.”

Dwayne turned to me and put his hand on my shoulder, “I know, Stephen. Me, too. But it’s always easier to want to believe in something than it is to say it never was true.”

I was staggered by the profundity of the remark.

Dwayne looked at the deserted playground for a moment and then back to me, “Don’t get me wrong, I love Santa, but this will probably be the last year I believe.”

I’ve always remembered this exchange. For years I thought it was because it was the only real talk I ever had about Santa Crisis. But as I look back, it was more likely memorable because it was my first crisis of belief.

That was 50 years ago and many crises of belief have come and gone. Last year, around Christmas time, I went back to Dallas. It was not for anything as festive as enjoying the holiday season under the old mahogany table. I came because it was near the anniversary of my mother’s passing, always a hard time for my family. A trip back home would give me a chance to see Dad, reminisce with my brother and sister, and give me another opportunity to sleep in my old unsleepable bed. The very same one I had as a child. When that salesman told Mom and Dad my bed would last a lifetime, they took him at his word.

A trip to Dallas also holds the potential of discovery in an archaeological way. Over the years Mom saved everything and tucked it all in the most improbable places for safekeeping. After she passed away we became painfully aware she never left a map.

Sure enough, on this visit, I found an old manila envelope at the bottom of my underwear drawer under a pair of pajamas last worn when I was in junior high school. Inside the envelope was an edition my elementary school newspaper: the Jefferson Davis News.

I looked through the little paper. On the back page was a picture of our first grade class taken in front of the school. I studied it and there was Dwayne, sitting next to me with his Best Citizen ribbon pinned to his shirt. It is the only picture I have of him. I silently thanked Mom for one of the best Christmas presents ever.