Arts: Age of disbelief
By David Templeton
[SPOILER ALERT: Anyone who believes in Santa Claus, still writes letters to and receives letters from Santa Claus, or would prefer not to hear stories about how other people came to believe that there was no Santa Claus, should be warned that, um, stuff is about to be said that might change the way they feel about, you know, Santa Claus].
[ADDITIONAL ALERT: Anyone who doesn’t “get” the humor of comedian Greg Proops should be warned that the actual Greg Proops appears to say some pretty humorous things about Santa Claus, beginning roughly halfway through this article].
“How old were you when you stopped believing in Santa Claus?”
That’s the question I’ve been asking over the last few weeks, as my now concluded one-man-show Polar Bears played its inaugural run at Main Stage West theater in tiny Sebastopol. The show, about my attempts to allow my kids to believe in Santa Claus longer than I did (I was 4 years old, statistically a bit young for the magical Santa wool to be lifted from my eyes), an effort I took on despite a number of major setbacks, including the death of my kids’ mom just before Christmas, when they were 7 and 8. In my personal case, my loss of faith was the result of my parents using the same wrapping paper for Santa’s gifts to me and my brothers—the paper had little polar bears on it—that they used to wrap their own gifts to my grandparents, my aunts and uncles and even the priest at our church.
As I say early on in Polar Bears, I might not have been the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but Jesus Christ! Really, Mom and Dad? How hard would it have been to get a different wrapping paper for all of the stuff from Santa Claus?
For the last 10 years or so, I’ve been collecting people’s stories about the moment they learned the truth about Santa Claus. Assuming they did, of course. Over the last decade, for every eight or nine people who told me their tragic tale of disillusionment and loss of faith, there is at least one who claimed to have never believed (usually because they were raised in a different faith tradition), and one or two more who claim to still believe, citing their faith in the “power of generosity” and the “spirit of the holidays” as being roughly equal to actually believing in Santa.
And during the run of Polar Bears, I distributed little questionnaires, asking audience members to divulge their age when they stopped believing (assuming they ever did believe, or ever stopped believing), and to give a few details about what happened.
“Dad had these boots that he’d use to leave footprints from the fireplace to the tree and back,” wrote D.B., during one Sunday matinee. That’s pretty much all D.B. wrote, beyond identifying his or her age at the moment Dad’s boot’s kicked off her post-Santa age of enlightenment, but presumably, those boots were eventually recognized by D.B., thus ending the illusion.
D.B. was 8 years old at the time.
One anonymous person, estimating his or her age of disbelief as 10 or 11, wrote, “I just started having suspicions. It didn’t make sense to me for some strange man to come down our chimney … especially because our chimney couldn’t even fit a small cat. I just figured it out.” There’s a provocative untold story there, apparently, regarding how the writer knew that the chimney would not fit a small cat … but sadly, nothing else is said about that.
“I sent a letter to the North Pole,” wrote J.R., who was 10 at the time he or she learned the truth. “I received a response (from the United States Postal Service, it turns out). After the initial thrill subsided, I compared it to a letter from Santa I had received two years earlier. The handwriting did not match. I did, however, continue to tell my parents I believed, thinking it would guarantee me presents.”
Over the course of the show’s run, I received about 50 filled-in questionnaires, and for the most part, the vast majority of the writers claim to have stopped believing between around age 4 or 5 and around 10 years old. The reasons given for the end of their Santa Faith are the classics: They recognized their parents’ handwriting in notes from Santa, noticed discrepancies or similarities in Santa’s wrapping paper when compared to how the family’s other presents were wrapped, or the big one: An older sibling, unable to suffer in silence and solitude, broke the bad news, which their parents either confirmed outright, or were just sort of sloppy and unconvincing when they tried to offer some improvised response to the question: “Is Santa really real?”
Partway through the run, I received an email from comedian Greg Proops, who I’d met earlier in the year at a bookstore appearance for his fact-filled volume The Smartest Book in the World. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch, and in response to a question I’d sent about Santa Claus, and his views on childhood fantasies, Proops responded with his typical dry humor and semi-whimsical directness.
“Childhood is trepidatious, and is best taken in small doses,” he wrote. “The ‘adults’ you run into aren’t much better, with their lies and their weaseling.” When I replied, asking him when he stopped believing, he replied that he could not recall any details of that moment, if there was one. But he had a thought on the matter.
“If one is under 5,” he said, “one is allowed to believe anything, like the Easter Bunny, or Bigfoot. After you start school, though, you are going to be forced to interact with other children. That is the damaging part, when the other kids let you know you are a ‘fraidy cat’ and a ‘spaz attack.’”
Sounds like the voice of first-hand playground-bully experience.
“I was ‘fem’ and ‘four-eyes,’” he admits. “But to be fair, I did participate in tormenting the kid with big ears, so … ”
As a kid with big ears myself (the other kids called me “Dumbo”), I have experienced such torment first-hand, and understand the pressure to pass it along to others even less fortunate. I like to think I mostly resisted the urge, though perhaps I could have been nicer to my little brother.
Who said childhood is full of innocence and sweetness?
“The same people who think liking animals makes them nice,” Proops replies.
Exactly. But we were talking about Santa, I believe. I finally asked Proops, given his somewhat skeptical view of the average kid-to-adult relationship, if he thinks there is any upside to children believing in Santa Claus.
“There is,” he affirms. “Santa is a good thing to believe in. Flying reindeer and elves can only make the world a better place. Such things, in fact, are a soothing antidote to Christianity.”
On the final day of my show, I received three final questionnaires. One, from a writer identified as Terra, said she was 16 when she stopped believing in Santa. Sixteen is about the oldest anyone has admitted to have kept their faith alive in the Big Man.
“The world had become a new and difficult place,” she wrote. “I was a pseudo-adult, had an older boyfriend, went to his prom, etc. Though we were brought up Jewish, my Mom (and reluctantly, Dad, too), had always played Santa ‘religiously,’ every year. We enjoyed overflowing red stockings and dozens of wrapped presents.”
But at the age of 16, she suddenly just … figured it out. It was her time.
“It wasn’t,” Terra wrote, “that huge of a disappointment.”