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

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Dec. 19 2014 9:27 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 about growing up Jewish in Dallas and learning that Santa isn’t real—but choosing to believe anyway. The original essay is reprinted below. Also, 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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

I asked Mom what a prayer was. She said it is when you talk to God. I wasn’t sure this was such a good idea. I was already scared of Santa. In the book they had a picture of a very clean, blond boy kneeling in his pajamas by his bed with his hands folded. I showed Mom the picture and said, “I want to do that.”

After dinner I got all dressed for bed, I knelt down and asked Mom what do you say when you pray? Mom thought about it and then said, “Here’s one. ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’ ”

I was horrified. This is what I was supposed to say to feel better? If I should die before I wake? Were they serious? I’d rather take my chances with Eye the Monster.

That was the last time I said that prayer. My fear increased. Now I was certain I would die in my sleep and be on the Naughty list. It was under this dark cloud of circumstances that I encountered my first conspiracy theory: the possible collusion between Mom, Dad, and Santa Claus.

We were Jewish and by all rights should not have celebrated Christmas. We also did not have a chimney, which should have made any Santa contact problematic. But we lived in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, home to exactly three Jewish families. My mother and father were very sensitive to anti-Semitism and were fearful that other children would taunt us if we appeared different. But secretly, I think Mom and Dad were afraid of our being “different” whether we were taunted or not. “Different” was not something that was considered good back in the late 1950’s. “Different” was not the proud banner we wave today. Back then being “different” had to be remedied.

Mom and Dad decided to go with the Santa scenario and give us presents on Christmas morning. That way we wouldn’t have to feel like outcasts at school. However, it wasn’t going to be as simple as celebrating Christmas in the good, old-fashioned, non-religious, strictly commercial way—with a tree, presents, carols, and hot cocoa. Mom felt guilty that she was betraying her Jewish roots. As a compromise, we had no tree, and in its place, thanks to a thought process that still baffles me, we got our presents under the dining room table.

Like all children on Christmas we were up at dawn. We raced into the dining room and started crawling in between the chairs under the table, looking in the dark for presents that had our name on them, occasionally banging our heads on the hard mahogany.

I remember once during this era I mustered up the courage to ask Mom the tough questions I had always been afraid to ask: “We have no chimney. What is Santa going to do?” Mom said she put a note out for Santa to use the back door. That disturbed me. It meant either we were leaving our house unlocked, which seemed unsafe, or that Santa had our key, which seemed creepy. I then asked what Santa was going to do without a tree? Mom said Santa was fine putting the presents under the table. I said, “But why? Why would Santa want to crawl under the table to put the presents there? That was a lot of extra work.” Mom said that Santa didn’t mind the work. He just didn’t want us to feel different by not having our presents under something. I said, “Mom, we’re still different. No other kids get presents under a dining room table. And kids who have trees don’t crawl under the tree to get their presents. The presents are around the tree.”

Mom paused to reflect and then did what most people do when they rely on selling a conspiracy theory as a basis for reality: She passed the blame on down the line. She said, “Stepidoors, we wrote Santa about the chimney and the tree and he said leave the door unlocked and he would put the presents under the table. I don’t know why. That’s what he said. That’s where he wanted to leave them.”

Mom’s passing of the buck to Santa worked for a while, or at least until I was 5 ½ and in first grade. My nagging doubts troubled me deeply. I had no one to talk to about it—until one afternoon after school right before the Christmas holidays.

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.

“No.”

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 of 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.

I wrote Dwayne’s words in the margin of the picture out of fear that one day I may forget them. It had an unexpected effect. I looked at the photo of all of those 5-year-old faces standing in front of Jefferson Davis Elementary, surrounded by the words: “It is always easier to want to believe in something than to say it never was true.” It became a grim school motto.

Dwayne’s proverb warned about false prophets and the mechanism they use to enter our lives. His wisdom still shook me to the core—but then again, he was 6. I put the paper down on the little broken bedside table and turned out the light.

As I began to drift off, I had a passing thought: We often find things when we need them. Maybe all the scraps of paper Mom had saved over the years weren’t a product of her nuttiness at all but were meant for me to unearth every now and then as some sort of amulet of protection.

I sat up in the dark. I turned on the light and looked at the class picture again. Truth operates in an opposite curve from conspiracy. The further one gets from conspiracy the more preposterous it looks, while distance only gives the truth more clarity. I saw something new. Buried in Dwayne’s words: “It’s always easier to want to believe in something than it is to say it never was true”—was also hope. Dwayne was saying the ability to believe is always present, always available. Belief gives us a power to see beyond the obvious. In the face of loss or disappointment, it is the source of renewal and endurance, the foundation of the science of second chances.

I was momentarily startled by a night noise. Now I recognized it as the central heat kicking in. Knowledge is the ultimate protection against the dark. But I admit I laughed when I realized my first thought was to wonder how Eye the Monster was doing.

I lay back down and closed my eyes. In an instant I was with Dwayne about to cross the street on that cold afternoon before Christmas. He laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. We looked both ways and ran across the street to Daughtery’s Drugstore. I felt like I was in one of the good bedtime stories. I went to sleep and had pleasant dreams.

Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor and writer. He is the author of The Dangerous Animals Club. Visit stephentobolowsky.com for articles, movie links, and more.

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