Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Outing Santa - but I still believe in make-believe

This was originally supposed to appear in the paper I write for. It didn't make it. Apparently, they are a family publication and can "never, ever out Santa". I am not a family publication, so this seems like a perfect place to begin.

When I was in the first grade my teacher, Mrs. Plastino, arranged for us a special visit from Santa. Leading up to the visit we were vibrating with amazement, and endless questions of, “How do you know him?” or ”How is he visiting our class when he is so busy getting ready for Christmas?” Since we were going to be granted a private meeting with Santa we wanted to make sure our lists were spot on, so we spent most recesses hashing out our lists. That year my particular list included a Baby Alive doll and Little House on the Prairie books.
I would spend hours in the afternoons leading up to Christmas pouring over Sears and Toys-R-Us catalogues, circling my fantasy gifts, endlessly discussing my choices -- “Mommy, I also want Santa to bring me a Snoopy Sno Cone machine and an Easy Bake oven!” However at this tender age, I was already having my doubts about how this Santa guy worked. I believed he lived in the North Pole with the Elves, cobbling wooden trains and blocks on ye olde benches. I believed in Rudolph and all of the reindeer. But I started to have some questions because I didn’t have a chimney for him to come down. My parents explained that millions of children didn’t have chimneys, but had fire escapes – like we had - and that was how Santa magically delivered presents.
I still had two points that stuck in my brain, nagging at my six-year old belief system. First, were those dime-a-dozen Santa’s that we saw in the mall. To me, Santa and all that accompanied him represented magic, like the fairies that I so feverishly believed in. The fact that I couldn’t see the fairies only fueled my total belief that fairies existed. By seeing Santa at the mall, it eroded the fantasy for me. The other point that I could not reconcile was the fact that the Baby Alive doll that I so desperately desired, was easily purchased in any toy store. I didn’t believe that Santa made them, so what was he making with his elves up there? Nothing but simple wooden toys? I certainly didn’t believe that he went to the mall. And I did not believe that he made any of the toys that were mass-produced. I was in a crisis.
Mrs. Plastino told us that because Santa was so busy, it was going to be a surprise when Santa would visit our classroom. One day, as we settled into our morning routine we heard sleigh bells jingling away down the hall. Glee erupted in our classroom, and a palpable wave of nervous excitement spread throughout. We were all a little scared -- I mean, Santa, here in our first grade class? The sound of sleigh bells grew, and then we heard the classic bellowing of “Ho, Ho, Ho!” To say that thirty kids freaked out is an understatement.
Santa burst into the class, shaking his belly, being merry and bright, talking to us about being good girls and boys. He even had a list with our names on it, confirming that we were all indeed on the good side. Mrs. Plastino passed out cookies and juice and Santa settled in to listen to each of us on his lap. As I settled in with my snack, and watched the scene I began to watch Santa and Mrs. Plastino, with growing suspicion. They smiled at each other; she put her hand on Santa’s shoulder, intimacies that I couldn’t quite piece together.
It came to my turn on Santa’s lap. I was excited to discuss my well rehearsed list but I was warily skeptical at the same time. I was pulled into Santa’s gregarious embrace and as he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, it struck me whose lap I was on. Nothing could hide Mr. Plastino’s thick New York accent or the equally thick black stubble that peaked out from under his snowy white beard. Mr. Plastino was also my after-school theatre teacher, who I loved, so I was very familiar with his voice. I played along with the game, telling him of the Baby Alive that I wanted, and throwing in a bike for good measure. I would swear we made knowing eye contact with each other confirming what we both knew.
After Santa left, many stunned students kept asking, “Mrs. Plastino, was that really Santa?” “Oh yes” she replied, “That was Santa!” Even though the visit chipped away at my belief in Santa, I was at peace knowing it was Mr.Plastino. I was still a child filled with fantasy and make-believe - I had my fairies, whose existence I was absolutely sure of. The experience solidified my connections with these teachers - each of them encouraged my love for reading and theatre, which I have to this day. And as a grown-up I admire them for going through with an elaborate plan to be Santa Claus to surprise and delight a class of first graders.

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