Ever since my kids could communicate, whether by speaking or in writing, they have been inquisitive. They have wanted to know how a TV works, why we have to stop when a traffic light turns red, and how we vote for our leaders. And I have done my best to answer these and other burning questions in a direct and honest manner.
Except when it came to topics to do with our holidays and traditions.
When I was asked about Santa Claus, about where he lived and whether he was real or not, I stuck with the common childhood belief: he lives in the North Pole, I would say. Yes, he's real. The same went for the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.
Over the years, my kids would continue to ask if these characters really existed. I figured they were encountering debates at school: some kids believed; others did not, depending on his or her religious and cultural beliefs. And so I would maintain, when asked, that these folks were real, just as long as you believed that they existed.
On Christmas Eve, or when a tooth was lost, my daughters would write notes and leave them with the milk and cookies or beside their beds, with the lost tooth. They would have questions for Santa or Fairy, leaving pens for responses. In my best writing, I would try to answer. And my girls would seem satisfied.
For the time being.
As they grew, my daughters became skeptical. They had come to the conclusion that a rabbit hiding chocolate that they saw in the stores highly unlikely. One year, to support that realization, my wife and I created an Easter hunt where notes with clues would lead them around the house, where they collected chocolates as they moved from hiding spot to hiding spot. They really enjoyed that and we've repeated it in some years; in others, we've hidden caches of plastic eggs that held treats.
The Easter Bunny was dead.
My youngest, who was the biggest skeptic, devised a clever plan to thwart the Tooth Fairy. When one of her teeth became loose, she worked hard at wiggling it free, without telling anyone in the family. When the tooth came out, she placed it under her pillow that evening.
And said nothing to her mother or me.
For days, the tooth remained under her pillow (she had a special pink plastic case that she used to store the tooth, thinking that the Tooth Fairy would prefer that to having to feel around for a tiny tooth.
Finally, after days without a visit, our daughter told us that she knew that the Tooth Fairy wasn't real, that she had a sure way to find out. She told us that she would prove it, when she put her lost tooth under her pillow—she didn't tell us that the tooth had been under her pillow for days, but rather led us to believe she had just lost the tooth and would put it under her pillow for the first time that evening.
She wrote a note to the Tooth Fairy, explaining how she had discovered that the pixie wasn't real that she would prove it in the morning. In my best Tooth Fairy handwriting, I responded, while she slept, that if she didn't want to believe, that decision was hers alone to make.
The next morning, when our daughter waved the two-dollar coin in our faces, she said, "I knew it was you! I lost that tooth days ago and had it under my pillow all along. It wasn't until you knew about it that I got paid."
Smart girl, but the Tooth Fairy was dead.
Santa died this summer, during our trip to France. We were in Sarlat-la-Canéda, in the Dordogne region. We had spent a day canoeing and kayaking, and had decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner in this quaint town. I still remember eating the best foie gras and duck, enjoying some delicious wine, and being entertained by a brusk but kind waiter.
My young daughter addressed me in a serious, business-like manner. "Dad, is Santa Claus real?"
I let my pat answer roll off my tongue: "He's real if you believe in him."
"No, Dad, I want the truth. Is he a real person?"
"You want the truth, whether you like what I tell you or not?"
Our main course was done. We were waiting for dessert. My wife, eldest daughter, and I had ordered from the daily special menu, which included cake. My youngest didn't want what was being offered.
I looked into her eyes: they were determined, locked onto mine. She would know if I was lying. I'm a terrible liar.
"I am Santa," I said.
She cried. She told me I sucked.
"You wanted the truth," I explained.
"I know," she wept. "But I didn't want this to be the truth."
I killed Santa. But the waiter, seeing the tears, brought her a piece of walnut cake, even though it wasn't part of her meal. He said it was a mistake on his part, but that she had better take it, lest his boss discover the error.
My daughter lost a tooth yesterday. She didn't hide it, didn't ask for cash. For Christmas, I don't know what to expect.
But I doubt there will be any letters to Santa.