A Gift to Be Simple

When does Santa consciousness begin?

By Jane Borden

Santa Claus is like the measles vaccine: Even if you don’t want to expose it to your child, you must in order to protect all kids. Otherwise, children infected with Santa Claus doubt will spread it around in ever increasing numbers until no one can go to Disney World without a face mask.

For my daughter, the ruse began earlier than I expected or wanted it to. She was 6 months old for her first Christmas. At that age, her days consisted of being moved around by two giants, who fed her and occasionally strapped her in and out of a big machine that moves fast. She aimlessly wandered among colorful plush items, some of which blared and blinked. She occasionally found herself in a pool of splashy liquid. She didn’t understand the concept of gifts, much less that there can be a scarcity and then sudden surfeit of them, or that an elderly stranger would create said surfeit with elaborate design but without logical reason.

Seven years ago, when my niece was 18 months old, I asked what she’d like for Christmas, and my sister replied, “An empty water bottle. She loves how they crinkle.“ I purchased, drained and wrapped a single serving of Crystal Geyser. My niece was delighted. She squeezed the bottle, flopped it around and used it to bang a variety of furniture items. She loved it almost as much as the ribbon previously donning it. Pieces of literal trash for the win.

This anecdote framed my mindset during my daughter’s first Christmas. Babies just want to crinkle. Or, maybe it’s that they want to be indoctrinated into a consumer society with an over reliance on semisynthetic organic polymers and a lack of forethought of the ramifications of disposability. It’s one or the other. Either way, they don’t want gifts. I procured none.

After dinner, on Christmas Eve, my family fell into the routine we’d developed over the previous eight years. I waited for my sisters’ children to fall asleep, poured myself a glass of wine, and watched/heckled as they and their husbands set up Santa Claus presents on five different chairs in my parents’ living room. I’d barely a chance to capture on film my frustrated and tipsy brother-in-law struggling to assemble a medieval-looking tower guarded by a dragon who spews plastic stones, when my sister asked, “Aren’t you going to set up Louisa’s chair?”

Of course not: crinkle, consumerism, etc. I had a pass on Santa that year, and figured I also would the following year, and maybe even the one after that. “She doesn’t care about Santa,“ I said.

“No, but my boys do. Don’t you think they’ll wonder why Santa didn’t bring her anything?”

Of course. How could I not have anticipated this? How can I call myself a feminist while failing to recognize the basic structure underlying any kind of systemic lie? Patriarchy, Santa Claus: six of one, half a dozen the other. Now it was my brother-in-law’s turn to laugh at me: What a rookie.

Making matters worse, we are not a family who wraps Santa Claus presents. I mean, ultimately this habit is not “worse” — see earlier discussion regarding the ramifications of disposability — but on that night the lack of wrapping meant I couldn’t fool my nephews and nieces with empty boxes in bows. When they looked over, they would expect to see all of Louisa’s loot, each item in the full monty. 

And these wouldn’t be passing glances. With the precision and commitment of a card counter, each child would scan and catalog the collective take of every other child. Each pile must generally be the same size, containing about the same number of gifts, and, most important, totaling the same amount in worth. Kids claim to hate math, but when assessing their siblings’ Santa piles, they’re suddenly on full rides at M.I.T.

We can’t be satisfied with what we have until we’re certain no one else has more. Knowing this truism of human nature, it’s amazing we adopted capitalism. Major societal isms aside, my point is that I really should’ve seen this Santa problem coming.

Like something out of a family holiday film, I found myself at 10:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve with no presents for my daughter. First, I ransacked her suitcase for any clothing yet unpacked. I needed something to which no cousin could point and say, “Louisa wore that yesterday.“ In this way, a brightly colored hand-me-down outfit bearing mermaids became a Christmas miracle. Clothing can cover a lot of real estate on a chair. This would be my centerpiece.

I hadn’t traveled with toys. Mom has a full chest, which is usually a blessing but on that night a curse, as my nephews and niece were familiar with every game, stuffy and rattle in the house. But then, on a dresser high enough to have gone unnoticed, in my mother’s room, I found a small dog figurine. Everyone knows how much babies love china. That felt like a stroke of genius but afterward, my ingenuity fizzled. I leaned a stack of diapers on the chair back, and balanced a new bag of wipes against the arm. I filled her empty stocking with tissue paper — the one magic trick available — and draped it over the chair back. It was almost passable, save for a large gap on the back right of the chair seat. Something was still missing.

I searched the kitchen pantry. Bingo: a bottle of peach-flavored, artificially-sweetened Propel brand electrolyte water. My mother always has it in stock. The children love it. However, because it is full of fake sugar and large doses of vitamins and minerals, my sisters limit their children’s intake, imposing an artificial kink in the supply chain and thereby increasing demand. A bottle of Propel, for a baby, was at least equivalent to a 5-year-old’s medieval dragon castle. Santa has left the building.

I dislike the amount of lying required to prop up this St. Nick business. Children aren’t stupid. Each logical question forces us to invent new falsehoods, which only compromise the architecture of the original lie. Why is Santa at the mall? Why is the Santa at this party my uncle? Why, when I told Santa I wanted a Cabbage Patch doll, did I also get one from my great aunt Emily and another from my great aunt Janie? Further, of course, there is the question adults ask themselves, which none can answer: Why do I want my child to sit on a stranger’s lap in a shopping mall, so much so that I’ll wait 90 minutes to do it?

Still, no parent can avoid participating in this house of cards. On Christmas Day, I tossed off lie after lie. When my nephew asked, with justified incredulity, “Why would Santa give her diapers?! That’s not even a toy or anything!” I told the biggest fib of all.

“Babies don’t need much,“ I said. Yeah right, thought anyone who’s been to a baby shower ever. What will I tell him next — that there are never lines at the DMV?

This year, my daughter is 3 1/2. She’ll understand Santa for the first time. Why should I invest so much effort and money into convincing her of a lie — especially when it only leads to inevitable disappointment? The lesson seems to be that you can expect to receive without reason from a person who doesn’t know you. I want to teach her the opposite: to give without reason to people unknown. I want her to be Santa. Maybe I’ll have her pass around Propel.  OH

When Jane Borden approaches her second childhood, the O.Henry staff plans to give her a huge stack of adult diapers for Christmas.

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