Letters to Santa

Letters to Santa

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Image by Lena Lir on Adobe Stock

My brother and I are twins. My brother, Ben, and I don’t look alike, and our demeanors can’t be more different. But we are brothers, joined from that sparkling moment of conception, used to sharing common quarters, food supply, and our mother’s attention, which, when we were growing up, was no more nor less to either of us. At one time or another, she’d make the parental error of comparison. But these times were rare, the last resort after a frustrating round, when backed into the ropes, she’d utter, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”

When we were small, we were fascinated by Santa Claus. He was everywhere. How could there be so many? When we heard songs like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the bold statement of He knows if you’ve been bad or good was loud and haunting. A useful invention, it stoked the months preceding Christmas with opportunity for behavioral improvement. Until about third grade.

I.

It was just after Thanksgiving, when the local stores and TV stations began hawking toys and children became glassy-eyed addicts. The start of Christmas vacation was just a couple of weeks away. We attended a Montessori school where older children are cohorted with younger, and first, second, and third graders become easy friends with former classmates in higher grades.

We were “The Twins,” and though dissimilar in appearance, people still confused us, often referring to us by the quality of our hair. Ben was Curly and I was Straights. We were friends with Sammy, Remy, and Duke—“The Triplets”—a couple of years ahead of us. Recess and after-school aftercare were a training ground. We were tall and quick and learned soccer from The Triplets, who had already started in a community junior league.

“What’re you asking for this year?” I asked the older boys.

“Nothing,” Remy said.

“Santa is made up, Straights,” Sammy said.

“No, he isn’t!” said Ben. “We saw his sleigh on the weather channel radar.”

“And heard his bells out the window last Christmas Eve,” I said. “He wouldn’t stop until I was asleep. Ben was asleep already.”

“And the reindeer made a big mess in our living room,” Ben said. “What do you think of that?”

“That’s proof!” I said.

“Children, children,” said Sammy. “Our parents make all that up. Your mom was probably out your window shaking some crummy bells from Target.”

“NO!” I shouted. “She wouldn’t lie.”

“Not to us,” Ben said. “Maybe your mother. Maybe you’re just not good enough.”

“Well, Curly, I never got coal,” Sammy said. He sat down at a picnic table. “Now gather round, children. I’ll tell you how this works. It’s not like a real lie. It’s called a ‘white lie.’ It’s when grown-ups want us kids to believe something that in the end isn’t so bad and won’t hurt us, so they make up this story about something that’s almost true.”

“It’s called plausible,” said Remy.

“I don’t care if it’s applausible,” Ben said.

Plausible. Like, believable. Like ‘make-believe.’” Remy made quotation marks in the air.

“Just like the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. All make-believe,” said Duke.

“That’s a lie!” I shouted, my small fists clenched at my sides.

“Now settle down, Straights! Look, we all believed it,” said Sammy. “We’re all turning out okay, and our parents are still okay people. We had a lot of fun with it, and our parents got a lot of mileage out of it.”

“Not to mention years of pictures with Santa,” said Sammy.

“He always creeped me out, I’m not gonna lie,” said Duke. “Sitting on some old guy’s lap. Even if he did give out presents. They scare us good by telling us not to even talk to strangers or take anything from them, and there they are—sitting us on an old dude’s lap for a crummy present.”

I could believe the Tooth Fairy was a fabrication, and possibly even the Easter Bunny, though our mother claimed to have surprised him one year when we were four, as she got home from work on Easter Sunday. Plastic eggs and candies were scattered with overturned baskets on our front stoop. Believing that story was irresistible.

Santa Claus was a different creature altogether.

II.

Mom knew something was wrong when we came home silent.

“Santa’s real, isn’t he?” Ben asked.

“Well, sure,” Mom said.

“Or is every Santa we see just a plausible Santa?” I asked.

“Plausible?” Mom repeated.

“Yeah, like believable but not true,” Ben said.

“Make-believe,” I said.

“Plausible is a great word,” Mom said. “Remember, Santa’s up in the North Pole, and he’s super busy before Christmas, so he has a lot of helpers who look just like him. He trains them special for the season. They have to go to Santa School and take a test before they can be a Santa.”

III.

On the playground the next day, we again got into it with The Triplets.

“Santa School? That’s just made up too,” Sammy said.

“There’s no such thing,” Duke said. “I mean, a school where they teach you how to say ‘ho-ho-ho,’ and be fat and jolly? Nah, I’m not buying it.”

“Look, I’ll show you,” said Remy. He opened his Chromebook, a mandatory component of fifth grade education, and typed in Santa School. There were over 800 entries.

“Made up, huh?” I said.

We five boys huddled together and read the entries.

“Well, guess that settles it,” I said.

“Did you write your letters to Santa?” said Ben.

“We did. Today in class,” I said.

“Yeah. They have to be sent in the mail. Email isn’t good enough,” said Ben. “Santa’s old-fashioned that way.”

“There’s still time,” I said to The Triplets.

Sammy shook his head. “Let’s play soccer.”

IV.

We were in a more loquacious mood on the way home from school and passed our letters to our mother over hot chocolate and cookies.

“Oh, great! They’ll get there on time, too. We’ll stop at the post office on the way to the grocery. I have to get stamps. Do you need help with homework?”

We assured her we did not and began our Christmas essays. We hadn’t yet gotten a tree, but the boxes of ornaments and holiday swag stood in the living room. They looked expectant—waiting for eleven months up in the attic crawl space, then being fetched a couple of weeks before the holiday.

“Some boxes want to be opened,” I wrote. “There are lots of those kinds of boxes at Christmas.”

Mom had disappeared into her room.

V.

We came to an uneasy détente about Santa. In fourth grade, our school stopped the exercise of holiday letters, and though the younger grades continued, our elevated status imposed personal choice on such matters. Written requests were reserved for our own time.

The Triplets had moved up to middle school, and that separation was only reconciled on the soccer pitch. The season ended at Thanksgiving and didn’t pick up again until late January. Opportunities for holiday interaction were limited. Sammy’s occasional taunts of “How’s Santa” were ignored as we matured, and then, like our nicknames, forgotten by us both.

But still, in our home, Santa was alive and well. His memory and occupation were recollected by our mother as an illustration of the rewards given to a well-behaved life.

Sometime during the summer between fourth and fifth grades, I discovered that I liked reading, for the amusement as well as the dollar a page our mother would pay each of us for a book completely read. I was making my way through the 350-page biography of the great explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and his adventure at climbing Mount Everest. It had been a Christmas gift from our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Spano. Of the content, I believe Ben took notice and inspiration.

At this age we were old enough to be left alone for brief periods. Our mother would visit with the Spanos or work outside tending to the yard. It was during one such time that Ben discovered the hatch in his closet ceiling leading to the crawl space attic. Ben regarded his solitary exploration as a Major Expedition, climbing the shelving in his closet, flashlight tucked into his pants pocket, hoisting himself up into the vast, dark, and forbidden space underneath the roof.

Fifteen minutes later, I heard him drop back down into his closet. He rushed into our playroom through the communicating bath. His eyes were a bit wild, and he had white fluff in his curls and hanging from his head like a storefront Santa caught up in a wind fan.

He reported how the floor and under-roof, the ceiling of the attic, was packed with white insulation that looked like dirty snow. He had snaked his way through the crawl space and into the area above our mother’s room, where he found a hatch and gazed out of the ceiling and into her closet.

From his perch, he spied on a top shelf a Dreamscape Santa Red Sparklers shoebox.

“Does she even wear those?” Ben whispered.

“They’re probably the ones she wears on Christmas and New Year’s, with the spangly stuff all over and the big heels.”

“But, Liam,” Ben said. “Those were on the shelf with the rest of her shoes. Why would she keep the box on a top shelf?”

“You better clean yourself up before she gets home,” I told him.

“Oh, right,” he said.

He went to the shower, and I went back to Mount Everest.

When Mom returned, Ben followed her into her room on some urgent pretext having to do with a submicroscopic splinter. Curious, I went along.

“What’s that?” he asked as we passed her closet.

“What’s what?”

“That box. Santa Sparklers.”

“Shoes,” Mom said. “Let me see your finger.”

After close inspection and a few pokes with a needle, which produced nothing, he was cured. Heading out, our mother glanced into the closet as she passed. She stopped and turned on the light.

“What’s this?” she said. She held a clump of insulation that she’d plucked from a shelf. She glanced up at the ceiling.

Ben shrugged. “Don’t know. Ask Liam.”

“Why ask me? I have no clue. I was reading.”

Our mother was a smart woman.

VI.

The next afternoon, our mother headed to the Spanos’ on some errand. Ben coaxed me into acting as his Sherpa guide. I was to hold his legs so he could dangle into the closet and retrieve the box.

“We have to do this right away. If we wait, she’ll—she’ll do something!”

With gross reservation, I followed him into the airless and dark attic void.

“Make sure you step only on the plywood,” he said. “Once you step through the insulation, there’s only the ceiling—”

I followed the beam from his small flashlight, a stocking present from Santa of last year and useful for reading past lights out.

“Shine it here,” he said, pointing with the beam and handing me the light.

I could see the outline of a trapdoor in this more solid section of attic. Ben pulled at a ring and lifted the wooden hatch, then lay down flat.

“Set the light there, on the side. Hold my legs,” he said, and I complied. “Don’t let go or I’ll fall head first.”

Ben lowered himself into the closet, then lifted the box from its place on the shelf and pulled it up into the attic.

“Shine the light,” he said, opening the box.

“It’s just a bunch of old letters,” I said.

“Hold on—these aren’t just any letters. They’re our letters. They’re all our letters to Santa!” Ben was grinning. “Busted! I knew it! Proof positive that Santa doesn’t exist!”

“I’m going back,” I said. “And I’m taking the light.”

“Wait a minute, what do I do with this?”

“Put it back.”

“Don’t you want yours?” Ben said.

“Nope.”

“I’m taking mine.”

“I don’t want to know.”

Ben stuffed the letters into his pants pockets.

“Help me put it back,” he said.

I again held Ben’s legs as he dangled through the hatch.

VII.

A short while later our mother returned with Mr. Spano. He was a retired contractor and, as he said, “Still handy with a hammer and a drill.” He had a six-foot ladder and a toolbox with him.

“’Lo boys,” he said. “Point the way.”

Mother led him into her closet.

We all saw the shreds of insulation.

Spano regarded us over the tops of his glasses.

“Which one of you is the perpetrator?”

“The what?” Ben said, innocently enough. His curls and cherubic dimples carried him forward down the road of “plausible.”

Spano turned to me silently.

“I was reading,” I said. “Shackleton’s ascent of Mount Everest.”

Spano looked at me closely. “Did you say Shackleton?”

“I—um—Hillary,” I stumbled. “Hillary’s ascent of…”

My voice trailed off.

Spano looked at my mother.

“You have a problem,” he said. “I can seal up this hatch. But these boys should know it’s not healthy up there. My guys wore respirators when laying insulation. That particulate stuff gets into your skin and lungs—causes asthma. Maybe even cancer. You’d know better than me, being a doctor an’ all.”

“Better seal up the access from their bedroom too,” Mom said. “I really appreciate this.”

“Not at all. You know we raised three sons. Make your two look like angels.”

“Oh, we are, Mr. Spano.” Ben smiled.

“Well,” our mother said to us when Spano had left. “What happened up there? And what were you doing in my room?”

I sat quietly, staring at the floor.

Ben was humming to himself.

“Spill, boys,” she said. “Or you’ll sit here in the kitchen all night.”

“Exploring,” Ben finally said. “Like Edmund Hillary. We wanted to see what was up there, and how far we could go.”

“Is this true,” she said to me. “Liam?”

“True enough,” I said.

The pull to not believe was too strong. Like gravity. My knees gave way, and I fell to earth.

VIII.

We entered fifth grade at ten years of age. Our birthday is in the summer, and we would spend the whole year at that number, without the honor of class birthday festivities. We started school in August and immediately counted the days until winter break.

As Christmas approached, and the boxes again made their appearance in our living room, we listened to the expectant voices of the younger kids on the schoolyard discussing their letters to Santa and the gifts they wished to receive.

They asked us, “What do you want from Santa?” and “Did you write your letter yet?”

“Don’t spoil it for them,” I told Ben. “Remember what we went through with The Triplets?”

So, Ben had taken to neutral answers like “I want—peace on earth” and “No letter this year! I can email mine now that I’m double digits!”

One third grader was persistent, so I asked him to help me write my letter, and he did his best, with colored pencil on construction paper, while I dictated. When Mom came, I handed her the letter.

“Here,” I said, climbing into the car.

“Oh, Liam, how sweet.” She smiled. It was a mother smile, the one that beamed sunshine and love.

We stopped to pick out a tree—a six-foot blue spruce. At home, we decorated the tree and ate gingerbread. Holiday songs played. I had put on a Santa hat with antlers that lit up and jingled. Mom had strung the lights and put the angel at the top, then left us to fold laundry in her room.

She came out a short time later, carrying the Santa Red Sparklers shoe box.

“Boys? Let’s have a talk,” she said. She was serious and sad.

“I know now what was happening up there in the attic all those months ago,” she said. “Ben, was this your idea?”

“Why would it be mine? Why always me?”

Your letters are gone from the box,” she said. “Ben, you should have asked me. The dishonesty—isn’t fair.”

“Weren’t you dishonest,” Ben said. “I mean, the years of lies.”

“Lies?”

“Two words,” Ben said. “Wrapping paper.”

“What?”

“Santa got a little lazy last year and used the same wrapping paper as you,” he said.

“There was a sale—at Target.”

“Since when does Santa shop at Target?”

“Well-known fact,” Mother said.

“Really, Mother,” Ben counterpunched. “You don’t expect me to believe in magic, do you? I mean, the Tooth Fairy? Easter Bunny? Santa? They’re all made up. Adults don’t believe in magic—”

“Oh, yes we do,” she said. I could see she was about to cry, something she hated to do in front of us, and only on rare occasions. “I believed in magic for years while I was married to your father, doing everything and—and—hoping our marriage would get better—for you—but it didn’t.”

“See?” Ben said coldly.

“Not ‘see.’ Maybe I just didn’t believe hard enough,” she said, and walked back into her room and closed the door.

She’d left the shoebox on the kitchen counter.

Ben stood, unrepentant. “You can take your letters, I guess,” he said.

“They’re not mine anymore,” I said.

“Course they are.”

I stood looking at him, my antlers blinking.

“Did that make you feel good?” I asked.

Ben pulled his hand back from the shoebox as if it were electrified.

“If it made Mom happy—was it so bad to play along? If it made her happy—”

I went to her door and knocked. “Mom? It’s Liam. Can I come in? Please?”

She didn’t answer and her door was locked. I could hear her muffled crying, as if her face was pushed into a pillow, a sound I remembered from years past when our father was still present.

“Mom? Ben’s sorry—if he—that he went into your room—and—”

“Invaded your privacy,” Ben said, behind me. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’ll be better.”

“I’m sorry too, Mom. I knew he did it.”

“Give me a minute. Just a minute,” she said through the door.

We waited by her door for a moment; then I headed back to decorating the tree while Ben sat on the floor outside her door. I hummed along with the streaming carols and hung ornaments as far up as I could reach while standing on the step stool.

An hour later Mom emerged from her room. She sat on the couch and beckoned us to sit beside her.

“I’m sorry I brought up your father,” she said. “I’m sorry if you felt I deceived you. I only wanted Christmas—and other holidays—to be memorable. I love you both so very much.”

She spoke in a flat voice, as if she’d rehearsed her apology.

“It’s all right, Mom,” I said. “We—know.”

Ben stared at the coffee table. “Yeah, Mom. We know. I’m sorry too.”

Tears rolled down his cherubic face and collected on his dimpled chin.

Our mother put an arm around each of us and pulled us to her. “You’ll see,” she said. “When you have kids.”

“Christmas is still pretty magical,” I said, smiling at her.

Our mother paused as she looked at me. “It’s good to know I’m not the only adult here,” she said.

Ben mouthed the words “Brown noser” and shook his head.

IX.

A few years later, when we had just graduated from eighth grade, Mom was helping us clean out our room, making space for the coming austerity of high school. She found Ben’s letters torn up and stuffed into the ripped seam of a little-loved toy, perched on a shelf.

“Why, Ben?” Mother said. She was sitting on the edge of his bed, holding the scraps in her hands. “Why rip them up?”

He shrugged.

“I’m just trying to understand,” Mom said.

“And I’m trying to understand,” Ben said, “why Santa and all the rest of the made-ups are necessary. Why do that to us? Ask Liam—he feels the same way.”

“Actually—I think it was all kind of—fun.” I shrugged. “I mean, after a while, I knew Santa and all the rest weren’t real, but they made us happy. And, Mom—you were happy because we were. That’s what it’s about, am I right?”

Mom gave us a thin, sad smile. She sat with us, each on our beds, surrounded by our “stuff,” mostly childhood’s breadcrumbs, leading back to a place where we couldn’t return.

“Are you mad at me?” Ben said.

“No,” Mom said. “And I hope you’re not mad at me. Liam’s right. The ‘made-ups’ were—fun.”

“But you told us to be honest and punished us if we lied,” said Ben. His voice was soft.

“Look, Ben, if someone had told me when I was your age that I’d be saying and doing half this stuff—I wouldn’t have believed it. I still don’t believe it.”

She bent over to kiss his head, and Ben pulled back.

“Well,” she said, sitting up. “When you—if you—have children, and I hope you will, you’ll understand why—in the end.”

I don’t think Ben knew why he had acted as he did.

But in the end, the real end, it’s often the same, a child as to an adult. We let go our beliefs in small tatters, like torn pages, and watch them reassemble in colored pencil on construction paper, as innocent as a child’s letter to Santa.

About the Author

Maryanne Chrisant

Maryanne Chrisant, MD, has been published in 34th Parallel Magazine, Apricity Magazine, Connecticut River Review, Freshwater, Isele Magazine, JONAHmagazine, Open Ceilings, Pennsylvania English, Platform Review, Shark Reef, Sand Hills Literary Journal, Spotlong Review, and on the podcast Anamnesis: Medical Storytellers. She has attended writing workshops with Jericho Writers, The New School, Tufts University, and in Shaker Square, Ohio. She studied poetry with Galway Kinnell and Denise Levertov. Her short story “Dia de los Muertos” was nominated for a 2024 Pushcart Prize. Maryanne is a physician and has held leadership roles at many prominent health-care institutions in the U.S. An advocate for children’s health, she’s currently a medical director at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in South Florida. Maryanne is still raising her teen-age twin sons, who are now in college. She enjoys biking, weight training and traveling, and frequently returns to her New York roots.