I think everyone remembers the first truly shocking moment in their lives. When you felt as though you have just stepped off a cliff edge and, like an old cartoon character, you desperately flap your arms to keep from falling. Those kinds of moments change you.
For most people that would be seeing their dog be hit by a car, or hearing their parents are getting a divorce.
For me, it’s a little more embarrassing. It was finding out, already well into my tween years, that Santa wasn’t real.
See, I was very into magic as a kid. I used to dream about going to Hogwarts or finding an amulet in the woods and being transported into a parallel universe. And Father Christmas, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy were about as close as I could get to real magic.
My parents went all out too. There used to be bite marks in the carrots left for Rudolph, white “beard” fluff snagged on the fireplace, and when I was around nine and wrote a message to the tooth fairy thanking her for her work, I woke up to a tiny little reply note written on a dried leaf on my bedside table.
I was also a bit of a weird kid back in primary school. Habitually bullied, an insufferable know-it-all who could never be wrong, and profoundly obsessed with the idea that a big magical adventure was coming my way.
This lack of trust in my peers, deep reliance on my parents for emotional support and desperate need for there to be a power greater than myself combined to make me a champion for the Father Christmas cause.
“It’s just your parents putting it in the stocking – I saw mine do it,” Tom with the dirty knees would say to me at lunchtime. Oh, how I would scoff at him.
“I know YOUR parents might put the presents in the stockings, but mine certainly don’t. Of course Father Christmas isn’t going to come to your house if your parents don’t even believe in him.”
Eleven-year-old me would think how crazy it was that so many hundreds of thousands of families across the western world were missing out on this magic, just because somewhere along the generations someone stopped believing. Just a financially reckless decision on the parents’ part, to be honest.
I could only imagine that Santa now had a significantly reduced workload given how pretty much everyone in my class didn’t believe. How short-sighted.
Even my best friend was telling me that her mother, on good authority, had confirmed that Santa wasn’t real, but I simply told her we would have to agree to disagree.
My parents have since said that by the age of eight they were wondering whether they should tell me, but I was getting so much joy out of it they didn’t have the heart to do so. I think they were just hoping the kids in my class would do the hard work for them. But no, I was never going to make this easy for them. In fact, when I brought this incident up with my ever-generous and kind Mum the other day, she replied that I gave her “a real battering over it”. She isn’t wrong.
By the tail end of grade five, I was starting to have my doubts. I couldn’t quite understand how Santa would make it around to all the houses. Also, I was watching grown-up TV shows by now, and it seemed like most adults were on the same page about this whole Santa being fake thing.
One day, while on a walk with Mum, I mustered up the courage, looked up at her, and asked: “Who puts the presents in the stocking at Christmas?”
She looked down at me and you could almost see her decide.
“Matilda,” she said. “We put the presents in the stockings.” And then my world ended.
I kid you not, I collapsed to my knees right there in the street, gasping for air.
“How could you do this me, you’ve lied to me, you’ve been lying to me all these years,” I wailed. I wept the whole way home, pleading with my mum for it not to be true, for her to take it back. In fact, I cried for hours.
At home, I saw that my sister wasn’t distraught at all. I was overcome with a sense of betrayal.
“You knew!?” I spat across the room. Mum and Dad jumped in: “We’ve never had this discussion with her.” I think it was meant to assure me that no one had lied, but instead, it filled me with mortification.
I guess I was the stupid one, not Tom with the dirty knees.
For weeks afterwards I would be going about my day and then the crushing realisation that Santa (and by extension all magic and happiness in the world) was a lie would hit me again. Even though the sting lessened after a month or two, I used to wonder how long it would be until I could go a day without thinking about it. I lost count at a year.
But life goes on. In the absence of magic, there were boys to take up mental energy, and this new thing called FarmVille that was pretty cool too.
But very occasionally that feeling of falling would come back. A year or two later, perhaps in year seven, my grandma was taking us through a box of old memories she collected from our childhood. Suddenly, she pulled out an envelope and announced with wistful nostalgia that it was all the letters we had written to Father Christmas, and began to pull one out to read.
My sister Perrin, 15 at the time and ever my protector, dived in and said: “Hey Grum, maybe not now, let’s go see if Mum needs help setting the table.”
She correctly assumed this wound was still a little too raw to see the evidence just yet.
But, the somewhat permanent emotional damage and profound embarrassment aside, I’m glad I believed in Santa, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy as long as I did.
I think back, and while other kids were grappling with the mundanity and finality of the real world from ages six or seven, I was getting beautiful notes written by fairies on leaves. I would go to sleep on Easter Saturday knowing something magical was about to visit my garden, and I got to hold on to that sense of wonder far longer than most people do, and that’s stayed with me. Plus, you know, two sets of presents.
So if I do end up with kids of my own, I reckon I might just tell them not to listen to the Toms of the world and go on believing as hard as they can. But maybe I’ll start dropping hints around the age of nine.
Oh, and on a totally unrelated note, I no longer believe in God.