I wrapped my wife’s Christmas presents today. Early bird, I know. The truth is that I am a terrible gift-wrapper. Maybe one of the top-five worst in the world, so I have to start early because each gift needs at least three attempts. I’ve gotten better. I no longer take the CD’s out of the jewel case and copy them before I give them to my wife, like I did in college, and I use boxes now, rather than just make a cylinder of paper, stuff the sweater inside, and tape down the sides. But even my newfound adherence to gift-wrapping protocol leaves me with a brain incapable of basic pre-algebraic area formulae and ten sausage fingers more comfortable opening jars than wrapping presents.
My wife is extraordinary at it. She’s a maestro. She can wrap presents three times faster than I can, and they look like some meth-amphetamined Macy’s elf broke into our house and finished the job when we weren’t looking. She wrapped a life-sized, stuffed tiger for our middle daughter and when she was done it looked like a pair of earrings in a jewelry case. Swear to God. I wrap earrings and well, it looks like a life-sized, stuffed tiger. I tried ribbons this year. Huge mistake. I might as well have taken the ribbon, tape, scissors and gift, chucked them in a steel-ply Hefty bag with the cat, and took a nap.
It’s the thought that counts, right? Yeah, right. We prefer our traditions, our beliefs, our superstitions to come easily and look great. The mistakes make for great stories, but they’re embarrassing nonetheless. So we edit, we prevaricate, we lie.
When I was a freshman in college, I wrote an essay about how I found out about Santa Claus. I snuck downstairs only to find my mom and dad setting up the gifts. They turned, freaked, and my father tripped over my He-Man Castle Grayskull action set and overturned the tree. Funny right? Didn’t happen. The truth is far more banal and devastating.
I was eating cereal at the kitchen table, in June no less, and turned to my mom and asked if there really was a tooth fairy. I was twenty-three (kidding—I was eight) and she turned from whatever she had simmering on the stove and said “Nope, that’s us.”
“Hop, hop, hop.”
Holy crap. “Santa?”
Less than two minutes of my life. She might as well have twisted a kitten’s head off in front of me. I realize now it was the best way, like a band-aid, but that shit stings. Maybe I’d done some heavy thinking about it and just wanted to check. Maybe I already knew. Hell, when you break down the myths we tell kids they are not only fantastical but utterly terrifying. A tiny little winged homunculus flits from house to house buying teeth at Dollar Tree prices? An anthropomorphic bunny steals and hides eggs and leaves chocolate? A fat elf breaks into houses and leaves presents? If that happened on any other day besides the preconceived, agreed-upon holiday in question we’d call the cops, or at least Fox Mulder (X-Files reference—topical, I know).
I think it was just a hunch. I was always asking questions, sometimes the same one every day, just to see if the answer would change. My oldest does the same. She asks questions about things I don’t know the first thing about. She asked me if I knew the guy who created the Mayan calendar. She asked who the first woman who ever put her hair in a French twist was. She asked for the exact coordinates of the Voyager rockets, like, where were they exactly, right now. I have tools at my disposal that my parents could only dream about, and I don’t have the vaguest clue how to find those answers for her. She is either the smartest or the dumbest human being I have ever met.
So when she asked about Santa Claus three years ago, I thought back to my conversation with my mom and did the only thing that sprung to mind. I lied my ass off.
“I think you take us to put gas in the car and while we’re out Mommy runs around the house and gets all the presents out so when we get back the next day from Grandma and Grandpa’s it looks like Santa’s been here. “ She had pie charts and graphs, flowcharts of space-time ratios that predicted the amount of time needed to rush around the house and get Christmas ready versus the average chromatic allotment prescribed to the drive time and petroleum fill-up associated with an everyday gas run.
I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Let’s think this through. What’s more likely: Mommy and Daddy run through the house like headless chickens and get all the presents out in the small window of time it takes to go get gas, or a magic elf comes down the chimney while we’re away and sets everything up for us? Which it is, huh?” I was emphatic and probably a little bullying. She looked skeptical, but finally, she caved.
“I guess it’s Santa,” she said.
The day after Christmas she found a charcoal briquette on the ground outside our house and surmised it was from Santa’s sleigh, probably for some piece-of-shit “bad kid” in our neighborhood. She hasn’t said a word since. She’d found proof. That’s science.
She’s ten now, and it’s probably time to tell her the truth. And with the truth comes the biggest lie of all: it’s just as much fun even when you find out, because now you can keep the secret for the little kids and help keep the Christmas spirit alive.
Sure. That’s fun. Watching a bunch of wide-eyed zealots moon over a myth while you sit back and try to hold your tongue. Sounds great.
This past Sunday we were watching Evan Almighty as a family, because that’s the closest we come to church, and my kids wanted to know what Steve Carell was doing. “What’s he building?” they asked. Well, he’s building an ark, like Noah.
“Well, in The Bible it says that God was unhappy with how the world was going and decided to flood it. He gat this guy, Noah, to build an ark and put every animal on it, male and female, then they bobbed around for about forty days and then God drained the flood and we started over.”
“What? Noah what? Ark? What made that up?”
And we’re all going to hell.
Maybe it’s time to look for a church. I was raised in a religious family, and though my faith has waivered, I still feel like it’s there, because I believe it’s not really up to me, that there’s something bigger than me that keeps me in line and helps me along. The dressing up and shaking hands, the standing and the sitting, the hymns and sermons and potlucks are just something I’ve avoided, but it’s almost certainly true that my selfishness has left a hole in my family’s life, in my life.
And yet I wrestle with it everyday. I just don’t buy the story. At least not whole-heartedly. There are too many holes. And of course that’s where faith comes in, I’m told. But my decision to keep my kids away from it out of laziness or reticence is something I need to deal with. They need to come to their own decision.
But it’s funny: I have no problem forcing my kids to believe in a fat elf who leaves presents. (He is an elf, right? Not a dwarf or midget? That always confuses me. Reports differ.) Maybe the hard truth is that Santa isn’t for kids at all. It’s for us. Belief and faith are tricky and confusing, and grown-ups have an unfailing talent for getting it all tangled up in “philosophical arguments” or “everyday complications” or just plain old vanity.
So we make sure our kids don’t have that stuff to worry about. Because faith is faith, and what we don’t understand we call magic. And we can all use some magic, even when we can see the strings behind the magician.
It’s the same reason we wrap presents: we want to hide what they really are, because a wrapped present is a gift. It’s an endless spectrum of hope.
Whatever’s inside them is just stuff.
So have faith, however you can get it. Believe in something bigger, even if everyday feels like an attack on your beliefs. And, most importantly, make sure it’s wrapped, because that’s the only way it’ll stay magic and eternal.
Wrap your stuff, even if you’re a bad gift-wrapper.