Yes, Riley, There is a Santa Claus

*I know it’s been done, but this version, you see, is both personal and true.*

Perhaps it was my imaginative nature, or maybe my strong desire to believe in something good that went beyond logic – you know, one of those things that your mind knows isn’t, but your heart knows is.

Whatever it was built on, I was the kid who believed in Santa Claus well past the age when all the kids around me decided that he was fantasy or fraud. I believed even when I recognized the notes he left behind were in my mom’s handwriting. I believed even as I slept in the same room with my nephew to keep him from wondering in while my mom and sister laid out gifts in the next room.

I was in my late teens.

I didn’t just want to believe. I didn’t just choose to believe. I honestly did believe.

Money was tight when I was growing up. At least it was in the house that my sister and I lived in. In the other house, the one where we went to visit our dad, the one that never really stopped being my grandma’s in my mind, money was fine. Christmases were grand really and, if Christmas trees thrive on the dollars underneath them, a lot of flourishing trees decked that house.

Santa visited my dad’s house early on Christmas Eve. A lot of people think that Santa starts at nightfall in the far East, but, if you grew up a child of divorce, you know just how many non-custodial houses Santa has to visit Christmas Eve day, the weekend before Christmas, the weekend after…

So that house – my dad’s house, my grandma’s house – always got the first shot at us. And it always delivered. We would come home with the loot slung over our backs like miniature versions of Santa and show my mom, and my stepdad when he was there, our take.

My mom would smile as we put our loot on display, and it was sincere. Honestly it was. The older I got though, the harder it was not to notice that her genuine smile was made in the midst of torture. The more Santa left at my dad’s, the more my mom had to worry whether Santa would come through at our own house, or if whatever he decided to bring would seem small in comparison and she would see disappointment instead of delight come Christmas morning.

I understood that we didn’t have as much money in one of my houses as we had in the other. I understood it better and better as I got older. It wasn’t because my dad worked harder or was smarter or deserved the extra money more. It was because one of my houses had to raise kids and the other one didn’t have that responsibility. The money under the tree in one house paid for school lunches and field trips and football games and clothes in the other.

Yet, for eighteen years I woke up at the house where I lived in and I was never disappointed. Even when I knew that there was no money for Christmas. Even when the look on my mom’s face on Christmas Eve said that she was worried that I would be. I was so far from disappointed, in fact, that I still remember exactly the way Santa laid out the spread the year that I got my pink bean bag chair, my twin sailor dolls in the basket and the stuffed turtle that folded up into a pouch. That Christmas is that vivid in my mind.

It didn’t matter whether or not my stepfather lived with us at Christmas time or if my mom was toughing it out as a single parent. It didn’t matter what bills had come in during the course of the year, if someone had been in the hospital, if a class ring had to be bought or senior pictures had to be purchased. Somehow, come Christmas, my house always looked rich.

That’s why I believed in Santa Claus. That’s why I continued believing long after everyone else had stopped. We didn’t have the money to buy the gifts that Santa brought, so where else could they have come from?

Recently, my mom told my sister that my great aunt on my dad’s side and my dad’s mom helped her a lot at Christmases when we were little. Without them, she said, we may not have had any Christmas at all. She wasn’t their responsibility. We weren’t their responsibility. But they did love all of us enough to make sure that she had the money she needed to give us  Christmas – the kind of Christmas that made sure that we would never stop believing in Santa Claus.

And that’s why I still do.

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