Principal Muckenschnabel screwed everything up one Christmas. This shouldn’t have been a complete surprise; he was a first-rate stick-your-freakishly-big-nose-in-little-kids’-business kind of guy. And, this made him even less popular than the cafeteria lady, who filled our trays with chintzy helpings of lasagna and extra-large spoonfuls of limp green beans.

Mr. Muckenschnabel’s budinsky-ness included lobbying against school field trips, refusing to provide class party treats, and putting an 11-minute cap on recess. He cited health and safety reasons, but we knew he was just a crabby old goat who delighted in crushing the spirits of every last student at Immaculate Conception. It was like it was just part of his job.

However, not one of his previous stunts was anything compared to the disaster he created in 1974, approximately two weeks before winter break. The swings are dotted with seven of us, enraptured by third-grade Wendy Cornelius, who was waxing poetic about last year’s Christmas Eve when she actually saw Santa Claus, with her own two eyes. Not three feet from her pillow-camouflaged body, jolly Old Saint Nick shot out of the chimney with a sackful of Barbies and Easy-bake ovens and baby dolls and Stretch Armstrongs! We are wide-eyed and in awe, not one of us questioning her magical, and only slightly cockamamie, story. Not one of us except Sue Ellen Smoot, a lousy fourth grader who should have been voted “Most Likely to Marry Principal Muckenschnabel.” Uninvited, she slithers into our conversation, challenging Wendy’s most-excellent version of events. Then she drops the atomic bomb: “Anyone who believes in Santa Claus is a big fat baby.” We jolt, we gasp! Students at our grade school did not step over inviolable Kris Kringle lines—and this one had jumped. In that moment, a horrible, horrible girl deservedly became the spawn of Satan.

A frantic mob, we ran light-speed to Principal Muckenschnabel, who was over-monitoring the playground. I demanded the “truth.” I needed an adult, pronto, to look into Sue Ellen Smoot’s beady pig-eyes and announce that she was wrong and dumb and a liar. It did not matter one bit that I, and most of the others, already knew that she was probably right. We wanted and needed to believe, because believing created an infectious Christmas magic that sparkled one, and only one, day a year. It was that simple. And, frankly, we now hated Mary Ellen and thought she might get in trouble. It was a win-win.

I imagined our headmaster would hem and haw and change the subject the way grown-ups were supposed to. But, without even a reflective pause, Principal Muckenschnabel says this to a bunch of 7 and 8 year olds:  “Santa is made up for little kids. You are all too old to believe he is real.” *BAM* Thanks, Scrooge McGrinch. If I could have predicted your jerk answer, I would have invited you to dinner months ago and carved out your blasphemous tongue with a butter knife. The rest of the gang, sans Sue Ellen, would definitely have approved.

After that, we outright detested the man. I guess we were like the entire Internet population, who now rightfully abhors the substitute teacher who scarred a bunch of first graders when she announced that Santa is fake and that the “presents left under the Christmas tree are put there by their parents” – Santa News. Incidentally, she threw the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy under the bus too. She was kind enough to spare leprechauns and the boogie man, though.

What a disheartening disaster. Elementary school minds are adept at disregarding their friends’ self-righteous Santa opinions, probably because these same peers tell whoppers all the time. But when a grown-up, even an unpalatable one, breaks rank and spews forth this adults-only intel, a shiny Christmas fantasy bubble bursts. And a burst bubble can’t be repaired.

I am not advocating that we fudge until little ones are old enough to serve in the military or purchase menthol Marlboros. But, there is no reason on earth that we need to shell-shock them with a “truth” that they don’t necessarily want to know.

I think a less in-your-face and more sensitive approach is the way to go. What if we start by using our own handwriting on Christmas gift tags, instead of a shaky left hand trying to approximate Santa’s? And what if we skip leaving an elf-composed thank you note for the cookies and milk our kids left out? What if, once in a while, we wrap presents in the same paper we used for birthdays?

I propose this: we let our children discover for themselves, by relying on their burgeoning critical thinking skills and natural skepticism, that Santa and his entourage are wondrous characters in a lovely holiday fable. And if we can’t exactly commit to that—let’s at least agree not to Muckenschnabel them.

Susie b Cross is a mom, a wife, a pet-owner, a tennis player, a Real Housewives watcher and a New Yorker cartoon reader (yeah, I don’t always understand them either…). She is complex and she is blessed. You can read more of her writing (some goofy, some not) under Susie Bonzo


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