No, Matthew

December 14, 1993|By TIM WARREN

I killed Santa Claus the other day. It happened right after I bumped off the Easter Bunny.

It wasn't my idea. But my older son Matthew, who is 6, kept pressuring me. So I had to slip a shiv into Santa's back.

For weeks, Matthew had been asking me if there was a Santa Claus. Every time, I deflected his inquiries. ''Now why would you ask a question like that?'' I said to him teasingly the first time. I changed the subject, and he forgot about the issue for a few days.

A denouement was inevitable. For one thing, we were smack in the middle of Christmas season. We started seeing Santa's ho-ho-hoing face in books, TV commercials and advertisements, not to mention encountering a real-life fake Santa on a visit to the mall. Even the most distracted, oblivious-to-it-all child in the world would have Santa on the brain.

Matthew is a literal-minded kid. When he wants to know something, he will persist until he gets the information he wants. His questions about God and religion are amazingly sophisticated, and he doesn't settle for easy answers. (You can imagine his skepticism when I tried to explain the Holy Trinity.) A few weeks ago he began to ask if there really was a fat man in a red suit who flies around the world, giving presents to millions of good little children in, oh, 12 hours or so.

How does he know which homes to visit? Don't the reindeer get tired? And how does he fill up the sled with presents? That last question rose when Matthew was reading a book in which Santa was pictured flying through the air with a sled full of toys. He pointed out that those toys weren't enough for even the kids on our street, so how did Santa refill the sled for the rest of the Free World? When the logistical questions about Santa became more pointed and technical, I knew we were dealing with a potential loss of faith -- and my own credibility.

Matthew's old enough not to believe any answer resembling ''It's magic,'' so the vague approach was discarded quickly. I also saw I'd have to come up with increasingly preposterous answers to explain Santa's wizardry at making presents and handling a sled. Like all sons, Matthew will some day see his father as hopelessly out of it, but I wasn't eager to contribute to that perception so early in the game. There's plenty of time for that when he's a teen-ager.

Finally, there was precedent. Only a few months earlier, when Matthew had lost his first tooth, I was forced to tell him that there isn't a Tooth Fairy. That became necessary when his younger brother Nick, who is 3 1/2 , was having problems getting to sleep. Since the boys share a bedroom, Nick became uneasy at all this talk about a stranger invading their room in the middle of the night, even if it was to drop off some money.

I sat down the two of them and slew the Tooth Fairy myth, while reassuring Matthew that he'd still get his money -- he had negotiated a fee of $2, and no less. Neither boy seemed to be distressed at this revelation, and family life moved on.

But I predicted to my wife at the time that Santa would not live to see the New Year. I was right. Around Thanksgiving, Matthew started asking questions.

He was so earnest. ''I just want to know,'' he told me. There was a part of him that wanted to believe in magical things and presents coming out of the sky. There was also a part that didn't want to be taken for a sucker.

I gave one last evasive answer when we were reading ''The Night Before Christmas.'' When Matthew popped The Question again, I said, ''Well, you know, Matthew, if you want to believe in Santa Claus, you can.'' We don't usually speak to our children in platitudes, so I immediately felt foolish. Although Matthew didn't press the matter, his look suggested that he wasn't expecting an answer quite that ridiculous.

When Matthew asked again the other day when we were driving to the school-bus stop, I was ready. First he asked if the Easter Bunny really existed. Nope, I answered, and he seemed relieved, even joking that it was hard to believe that one lone rabbit could bring candy to kids all across the country. I could see where the conversation was headed.

When The Question did arise, there was a momentary twinge inside as I answered, for I was a collaborator in the loss of some of his innocence. But Matthew wasn't all that interested in perpetuating myths. As I expected, it seemed that a friend with a world-wise older brother had been telling Matthew that Santa was bogus.

Matthew did have a lingering question or two -- primarily he wanted to know, if Santa was fiction, who supplied all those presents under the tree -- but mostly he was glad to be in the know. He readily agreed to keep this new-found information from his younger brother, who still believes unwaveringly that Santa exists and no doubt would be devastated to hear otherwise.

As Matthew boarded the bus, I did feel a little funny, having iced Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in the same day. Second-guessing is evitable as a parent even when you know you're doing the right thing, and if Matthew was happy to lose one illusion, I was sort of hoping he hold onto it a little longer.

But at least he didn't ask where babies come from.

Tim Warren is book editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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