The first time I figured out what Santa was came a few months after kindergarten, when my school was sponsoring an event for his arrival. Needless to say, my five-year-old self was a bit starstruck, if not skeptical, to understand everyone else’s excitement over a supposedly overweight grandfather showing up on Friday afternoon. Eventually, when I finally sat on his lap and listened to what he had to offer, I embraced Santa Claus—and Christmas—accordingly.
For the next eight years he was my religion, and whenever December was approaching I knew it was just another annual celebration of the happiness that is songs, big dinners, and rainbow lights. Of course, the presents were always the main attraction. It was astonishing how accurate the old man was in knowing what I wanted every winter; when I was eight I tried to trick him by not writing a letter (after all, if he knew my bedtime schedule I can only assume he was telepathic as well) and he still delivered with a miniature Death Star model outlined with spring-loaded rockets and six action figures to boot. I knew by then that he could hold up his end of the bargain, so I needed to do the same for mine. Occasionally, he’d even set direct requests to my parents “advising” me on what to do, just so our relationship could be that much more fleshed out and personal.
But nothing, nothing could top that Christmas when he sent a letter back to me. I knew it was from him. The elegant god script on bright red background confirmed it. So did the return address titled “North Pole.” But what sealed it for me (no pun intended) was that the envelope was secured with a penguin sticker, something that I had only specifically told Santa to do in my letter if he ever wrote back. I ended up taking better care of that card than he did with the actual gift. If I ever wanted to read those familiar words again, I had to gingerly lift it off my desk drawer, careful not to bend the sharp edges, making sure it was not exposed to a wet or dirty surface. I had to protect its magic.
You know how the story ends. The truth came out in 8th grade, when I’d recognized a similar sticker sticking out from the embroidery section. And when I visited my cousins a year later I saw the red and gold card I received propped up as family photos on their shelf. Mom eventually explained everything, but whatever imagination I had left, whatever belief that I held for this majestic figure disappeared as quickly as Santa did dropping down into the chimney.
Even to this day, I never figured out who wrote the actual message. Mom offhandedly mentioned that it was one of the mailmen that frequently dropped by our neighborhood during the week, but my memories are too fuzzy to even figure out what he looks like. I don’t think he remembers either, but I wonder what it must have been like to have that opportunity to fulfill a child’s hopes and dreams, even if the satisfaction is fleeting, false, and cold like the winter wind.