Friday, December 25, 2009

The 1st Hate of Christmas: the Scam

     My seven-year-old tongue probes the soft, rust-flavored divot between my remaining baby teeth. Another tooth lost, and I feel like a big boy, on my way to becoming a man. I inhale and look up at my tall, skinny dad, with his long nose and big Adam's apple. It's time.

     "Is the Tooth Fairy for real?" my timid, boy-soprano voice sounds.

     "She's real if you want her to be."

     Dad's voice is awkward and singsongy, like when he reads The Rescuers to me at bedtime. His brown eyes widen behind his rose-tinted, round glasses and his black eyebrows rise unevenly.  His Adam's apple  moves up and then down.  He smiles.  Something's weird in his smile, something that I don't have a word for yet, but it feels like I asked something I wasn't supposed to. I can see it in his eyes and hear it in his freaky response: he wants me to believe.

     But, I'm not stupid. It just doesn’t make sense that a miniature lady with wings can fly through a closed and locked window, get under my heavy head and pillow, and turn my bloody stump of a baby tooth into money.

     She's real if you want her to be?  What a bogus answer! My seven-year-old mind (Yes, I've reached the age of reason according to Catholic teaching.) sees right through my helpless father's smile. A dam breaks.

     "Is the Easter Bunny for real?"

     "He's real if you want him to be."

     Well, is just plain stupid! Why isn't he giving me a straight answer?  If you want him to be?  I want the truth! Is it really possible for a bunny rabbit to carry loads of candy, baskets, and eggs to homes around the world, and all in one night? A bunny can't open a locked door. A bunny can't cross the Mississippi River. No, there is no Easter Bunny. I can live with that, but the next question, it's more frightening and carries larger consequences.

     "Is Santa Claus for real?"

     "He's real if you want him to be."

     "So he's not real then."

     "Do you want him to be real?"

     What kind of question is that? Of course, I want him to be real. I want to get presents, the things that I want, every year for Christmas for the rest of my life.  I want to be rewarded for being a good boy in school with loads of Smurfs, Legos, and Hot Wheels.  Yes, I want him to be real. But...

     The North Pole? Flying reindeer? Glowing red-nosed Rudolf? Elves? A fat man sliding down our skinny chimney?  How does he get through the damper?  How can I believe that anymore? How can I believe anything again?

     "I don't believe that he's real."

     Dad doesn't flinch.  His Adam's apple bounces, and then he smiles looking proud, but also a bit disappointed.  Or is he worried?  I've never seen this look on him before, relaxed facial muscles surrounding strained eyes.  I don't know what it means.

     I have another question for my dad, a question that I'm too afraid to ask. I don't want to hear his answer. I don't want to be told that He's real if I want Him to be. I want to know that He loves me. I want there to be a life after death, because any night the house could burn down, I could die in my sleep, and I just want to go to heaven and be with the people who love me, forever.  I want to be forgiven for my sins.

     So, I don't ask.

     For years and years, my fear keeps me from asking, but true to my namesake, my doubt remains. Over time, I get used to the doubt. I forget that the unasked question remains. I'm side-tracked, converted, and brought into the scam.

     I help Mom fill the Easter baskets after my little brother and sister fall asleep. I put the quarter under their pillows, but make Mom retrieve the teeth. I stay home sick from school and find my Christmas presents early. I feel like an adult, like I'm important, because I know the same truth as my older cousins. Even better, I can make my little sister and brother happy by encouraging their belief. Why would I want to ruin that for them or for the other kids in my class?  They need their Santa, and I need my presents.

     When my little sister figures it all out, I'm eager to initiate her into the ways of the scam. When playing hide-and-seek a week before Christmas, our little brother finds the wrapped Christmas presents inside the big cardboard Christmas-tree box on the highest shelf in the basement.  My little sister and I spin a lie to keep his big brown eyes believing: Santa can't get to all the houses in one night, so he delivers the presents early to most houses and the mommies and daddies help him by putting the presents out on Christmas Eve after the kids go to sleep.  Little brother buys it.  Phew.  Presents for another year!  And another year.  And another...

     In my thirty-first year, I finally ask The Question that I was too afraid to ask in the first grade, even though my mind knew the bogus answer that would follow.

     "He's real if you want him to be," the echo of Dad's voice bounces through my brain.

     But, I know that he's not real. There is no god. There is no heaven. There is only this fragile world, this precious life, these delicate relationships, and the frail mystery of existence.  Still, I'm frightened.  What will happen if I don't believe in god any more?

     I try it out.

     The world doesn't end. I don't lose myself in the fires of debauchery. I don't abuse others and use them for my gratification. I don't fear, anymore. Instead, I find peace.

      And, I still love. I still hope. I still seek. I still believe.

     Only, I don't believe in the myth of the Santa Christ.