It was the Christmas that I was 8 going on 9 when I really started to ask questions.
It began as it had every year of my conscious life on Christmas morning. Trailing my four-years-older brother and tailed by my mom and dad, I flew down the basement stairs to see what Santa had laid out in front of the fireplace. And there it was, to this day the greatest Christmas present I’ve ever received: A shiny black remote-controlled monster truck.
As with all the toys left by Santa at our house, the truck was devoid of wrapping paper and any packaging that it may have come in had my parents, you know, bought it at a store. Just the truck and its controller.
Just one problem. Later in the day, when the Christmas commotion had subsided, up in my room I was presented with something that led to a chain of events that began to unravel all the magic: The box. Not just a box, but one with pictures of the truck all over it, with hard Styrofoam inside that the truck magically fit into perfectly, along with an instruction manual. Markings on the outside of the box indicated that this truck – or the box at least – had suspiciously come from Sears.
I immediately pulled my parents into the interrogation room next to the downstairs bathroom, the one with the lone table and bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. I said, “I don’t know what’s going on between you, Santa Claus and Sears, but something smells like horse manure.”
They explained that because of some complicated electronics Santa’s elves couldn’t quite handle at the North Pole, Santa had to contract with Sears for the more advanced aspects of the production. For eight seconds, I squinted into my father’s eyes, then flicked my cigarette against the wall, gathered my old man’s collar into my fist and said, “If you’re lying to me, I’m going to buy a real monster truck and drive over your car.”
Let’s face it, the cracks in the dam had been growing. A year earlier, Santa had left me a toy rifle (yeah, back when toy guns were a thing) – one that looked and felt exactly like the one I had aimed and fired in front of my parents at Children’s Palace just weeks before Christmas. (That was the year that I, in my obsession with the show “Unsolved Mysteries,” laid awake most of the night terrified that Santa was going to walk upstairs and murder me.)
Over the course of the year that followed the monster truck incident, my belief status began to firm up. By the time of my fourth-grade Christmas, I was all but a non-believer with my friends, but to my family I was still keeping up appearances. My year-older friend Chris gave me a talking to about how his brother, Mike, a year younger than me, was still a believer and to not ruin it. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I remember Mike bringing up the topic, saying, “Do you think he’s real? I think he’s real,” and I countered with, “Of course, I think he’s real.” But throughout the conversation I got the strong sense that Mike knew and he knew that I knew and that I knew that he knew that I knew.
However, my parents and brother still didn’t know that I knew. In the days following that Christmas, I was riding in the backseat of the Suburban, minding my own business as my mom and brother were in the front seat having a hushed conversation. Apparently, Santa had brought my brother the wrong Nintendo game. They thought I couldn’t hear or couldn’t contemplate their ruse, but we were headed to Children’s Palace to exchange it for the right one. Left in the car as they went inside, still clinging to a sliver of belief, all I can remember thinking was, “Real or not, this Santa sure is getting sloppy.”
I called my mom for comment on these stories and she had no recollection of anything. “You’ve gotta believe,” is all she said, laughing at my tales. OK, fine. I’ll try. Merry Christmas.