Years ago, when our son was a harmless bundle of blue blankets and diapers, my husband and I decided to go along with the Santa con, mostly out of laziness. We had discussed how annoying the holidays were, how Santa had become the fictitious embodiment of a consumer culture gone mad, how we didn't want to lie to our child.
But in the end we thought, Awww, wouldn't it be cute to have a picture of him on Santa's lap?
Now our son is a walking, talking person. And we're in way over our heads. He recently looked at me with all the openness and trust of a child who's never been lied to and said, "How does Santa get around to all the children in the whole world in just one night?"
"By sleigh," I said, rolling out cookie dough, sensing trouble.
"But how exactly does he make it all that way?"
"Fast sleigh," I said, nervously jabbing the bell-shaped cutter into the dough.
"Fast reindeer you mean, right Mom?" he asked. "Or is there some other form of power?"
"That's right, honey," I said vaguely. A light sweat broke out on my forehead. I was shaking as I opened a tiny vial of red sprinkles and by accident dumped them on my hand and arm.
"How fast? Like as fast as the speed of light?"
"Uh-huh." I said. As I wiped my arm with a damp sponge, the red sprinkles dissolved into a blood-like smear. Was it getting hot in here or was it just me?
Now keep in mind that this is a child who has spent nearly as much time in the 21st century as the 20th. That means that, thanks to the Discovery Channel, CNN Student News online, and a half-dozen other information sources that he accesses daily, the kid knows a thing or two about the world.
White lies about Santa were probably a whole lot easier to swallow in the old days, when rolling a large hoop with a short stick was considered a wondrous pastime.
Kids today are information junkies. Instead of riding their bikes up and down the street (kidnappers) or roaming the woods behind their friends' houses (pedophiles) or lolling about in the front yard imagining that cloud shapes are animals (boring), they are sitting somewhere trading facts.
This is a typical conversation between my son and his best friend:
"Did you know Jupiter has a canyon the size of the whole United States?" my son says.
"The great apes with the largest brains are chimpanzees. But the human brain is the largest of the primates," his friend answers.
"Most people think gravity comes from the earth spinning, but it doesn't. They don't know what causes gravity," my son says. "I think it's the magnetosphere."
They don't even listen to each other. And, excuse me, magnetosphere? Is that even a real thing? How am I supposed to fob off a load of hooey about a fat guy in a fast sled to a kid who hoards factoids the way I used to hoard Halloween candy?
Circling the kitchen with the confidence of a murder investigator who's toying with his perp, he closed in on me. "Hey, didn't that Einstein book say that nothing but light can travel at the speed of light?" He had me. The cuffs were on.
"Hm. I'm just going to walk over here and preheat the oven," I said casually. I turned the dial, yanked the door open, and stuck my head in. I needed some time to think.
At first I felt remorse: Why was I lying to this poor child? Was the Santa myth really worth ruining my credibility with him?
And I blamed myself. I'd always wanted children with inquisitive minds. But I'd created a monster. All that educational enrichment made him too smart for me to handle. I should have kept the television on. I should have stuck him in a playpen and spent more time cozying up to the Schnapps bottle.
Then I got mad. If he's so damn smart, why doesn't he figure it out for himself and put me out of my misery?
Then, like a seeker in a Native American sweat lodge, I had a vision. I saw a happy family sitting around the dinner table contemplating the mysteries of the universe. It was my family and we were in awe of the great spiritual wonders of life.
Enlightened, I pulled my head out of the oven. I was a cynic living in a cynical age. Science, not religion or faith or superstition, guides me through life. It suddenly struck me as sad that most of today's mysteries will dissipate with tomorrow's discoveries. Such certainty takes the magic out of life.
The Santa con was my husband's and my way of creating a little magic for our son. In a world full of logical explanations, we were trying to give him a sense of wonder.
I brushed the flour off my apron and pulled him toward me. "Maybe Santa is like a light wave. Or a laser beam," he said, straining to connect the mythical with the physical world. He's a big boy now and he's bound to find out the truth soon. He'll be disappointed, but he'll survive.
The question is, will he continue to look for wonder and mystery? Where will he turn to contemplate the great unknowns of the universe? What will replace Santa?
I'm banking on the magnetosphere.