The next was my five-year-old daughter, Norah. She sat on my lap, and then looked up at me with mystery and wonder. She didn’t recognize me at all. I thought about the power I had to influence her while playing Santa. I wondered what I might tell her that would make her a better person, perhaps motivate her to go to college, or marry a charming and intelligent person rather than some low-life douchebag with a fast car. But then I remembered that she was five, and what I really wanted… was for her to flush the toilet after going poop.
“What’s your name, little girl?” I said.
She looked me in the eyes, gave a sly half grin, and said, “Norah.”
I asked if she’d been good all year, and she vigorously nodded. Then I said, “You know… I was speaking with your father. He said you haven’t been flushing the toilet. Is this true, Norah?”
Norah looked down, her face somber and guilty.
“Hmmm…” I said. “I happen to know that you wanted an Elsa Princess dress. I’ve got one, but I don’t know if you are ready for it just yet. I’m going to follow up with your father before Christmas to see if you have been flushing the toilet after you go, and if so, I will be sure to bring it on Christmas morning. But if not, I’m going to have to give it to your friend Martha.”
Norah’s eyes narrowed when I mentioned Martha. She was a little blond girl from church. Supposedly they were best friends, but they always seemed to be fighting. Norah nodded, and suddenly I had the desire to keep the Santa myth alive until she started dating.
I gave her a bag of candy, called her a good little girl, and gave her a hug.
I went through a few more children. Many of them looked at me with terror, some with awe, some with curiosity, others with suspicion. Some called me by my real name. Many of them were older kids, who smiled, slyly, like they’d just been given access to the adult world. Like the big secret of their childhood had been found out, and now I was supposed to treat them as equals. And to them I said, “Ho! Ho! Shut your mouth. Merry Christmas.”
At one point my wife, Mel, walked past. “Have you been nice or naughty?" I said. Then I asked if she’d like to “hop up on Santa’s lap.” Our baby Aspen was on her hip. Mel gave me a straight-faced look and said, “Grow up, Santa.” And suddenly I felt like a creeper. Perhaps this whole Santa thing had gone to my head.
Near the end, my 7-year-old son sat on my lap. He’s a short, stocky little guy with blue eyes and a buzzed head. He crawled onto my lap, face soft and somber, like he’d been let in on the secret. Like someone had told him, or perhaps he’d smelled it. Somehow he knew. Somehow he could see it in my blue-green eyes that matched his, or he knew it from my voice that was, after 7 years of life with me, all too familiar.
I got nervous. Part of me really didn’t want him to know about all this. I didn’t like the idea of him finding out about Santa. Before this moment I had assumed it was because I liked the power of telling him that Santa was watching. I liked the control it gave me as a parent. But when I thought about the way he understood things more now, the way he had a better grasp on reality and the real, I wondered if the actual problem was that him coming to terms with the reality of Santa meant that he was growing up.
When Tristan was four, I asked him how much candy I’d have to give him to stay four forever. He said, “10, 10, 10, and 4.”
I gave him a handful of chocolate chips from the pantry. Then we shook hands. At the time, I was serious. I loved him at that age. I wanted him to be sweet and cute and little forever. I think a lot of parents feel that way. I often talk about how wonderful it will be when the kids are out of the house, but in actuality, I just want them to stay sweet and little. The thought of them growing up makes me anxious for some reason, and as I looked at my son, and realized that maybe, just maybe, he knew that I was not Santa, but in fact his father, I could see some of that sweet youth slipping out of him.
Tristan sat on my lap for a awhile before we spoke. Then I asked his name, and he slanted his eyes a bit, and I half expected him to say, “You already know my name, dad,” but instead he played along.
“Tristan,” he said.
Then we went through the motions, me asking if he’d been good, and so forth, and him saying yes... The whole time I was fearful that he was on to me, while he looked unsure if his suspicions were real, and behind his eyes I wondered if he was calculating a way to confirm them.
He told me he wanted the new Skylanders video game. Then I gave him a bag of candy. He got off my lap, and as he walked away, he turned to give me one last look.
I sat in the chair for about 20 more minutes, chatting with different children. The whole time Tristan lingered next to the stage. Church members started cleaning up tables and chairs, and once I was finished with the last child, I headed back to the office to change. About half way through the gym, I turned around and noticed that Tristan was following me.
I thought about running, but I assumed that would be strange, so I just walked faster. I didn’t know what Tristan might do. I know that half the time I go to the bathroom he tries to force himself in by blocking the door. It’s really irritating, and I assumed he’d do something similar here.
I made it to the church office, and as I shut the door Tristan wedged his body next to the doorframe. Then he looked me in the eyes and said, “I know that’s you, Dad.”
Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.