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The Santa Scheme: How I Kept the Magic Alive for Another Year

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

By Holly Rizzuto Palker

“Mommy, the internet said Santa is fake,” my eight-year-old child cried over the phone as I drove back from my teenager’s soccer game late last year. Apparently, a quick Google search had yielded the answer: “As adults, we know Santa Claus isn’t real, but many of us remember the disappointing day we discovered this was the case.”

There was no dearth of articles to back up the truth.

We hung up and I cried for the entire half-hour drive home.

I’d always imagined after the initial shock, I’d be relieved hearing that my youngest child no longer believed in Santa. I thought once I got past the melancholy feelings, I’d savor the joy of an easier holiday prep. The “present-hiding closet” in the attic would be mine again, I wouldn’t have to smuggle “North Pole wrapping paper” into the house, and I’d be free of the slip-ups I made every year that almost gave everything away.

My problem was that as the Catholic half of an interfaith marriage, I wasn’t prepared to divulge the truth just yet. Although I was happy raising my children Jewish, my husband and I had agreed they would always have Santa. We did this because I feared that without Father Christmas, we would grow apart from my demonstrative Italian parents and sever ties to my Italian-Catholic roots, which included festive decoration prep, a whiskey and food-laden Christmas Eve celebration, and a gift-opening extravaganza on Christmas morning. I called the one person who understood the heart of the holiday.

“Buon Feste! Dad, do you still have the Santa costume?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve got it, why?”

I’d seen Dad play Santa Claus with a rough-around-the-edges, macho flair. Forty years earlier, he and I hatched a plan where he dressed up to reaffirm my little sister’s belief in St. Nick after some snot-nosed Staten Island classmate filled her head with doubts. Dad worked hard all year long, saving up his bonus to splurge on gifts. He would be damned before he allowed the magic to be decimated.

“Four in the morning? You and your father are both nuts,” my husband said when I explained the saving Santa strategy. Dad was to come wearing the costume, park around the block, enter my house through an unlocked patio door, and jingle his bells loudly enough to wake us. My little one would jump up to see what was creating the clatter near the tree, and she’d catch a glimpse of Santa from the balcony.

“She’ll believe, if only for just one more year,” I said to him.

My husband sighed and shook his head.

“You don’t get it,” I said.

“I get it. Your father is bonkers, and you’ve joined him. As long as I don’t have to wake up at four in the morning, I don’t care what you two do.” He turned and walked away.

I was thankful he helped in the kitchen instead of drinking whiskey with Dad while lounging around on Christmas Eve, but my husband was still missing the, “Buon Natale! gene.” And although he loved celebrating, he couldn’t possibly re-create an event he had never experienced as a child. It was an event so significant it shaped my childhood. The magic and grand show of emotions Dad bestowed on my sister and me Christmas morning, by holding back tears of joy, permeated our living room and our hearts. That’s why I needed him.

I’d always imagined after the initial shock, I’d be relieved hearing that my youngest child no longer believed in Santa. I thought once I got past the melancholy feelings, I’d savor the joy of an easier holiday prep.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Dad shouted and rang his bells at 4:00 a.m. sharp on Christmas morning.

My little one ran into my bedroom with a look of terror on her face.

“Mommy, what is all that noise?”

I pretended I had no idea. “Let’s go see.”

She hesitated as Dad continued ringing bells so loudly that I thought he’d recruited a bunch of neighbors to join, as elves, on his walk from the car.

“It sounds like Santa?” I conjectured.

Her eyes widened as we tiptoed to the edge of the balcony and peered down at the white-bearded impostor throwing gifts under the tree. I held my breath praying me and Dad had succeeded.

“Is that really Santa?” she asked. I watched as she stood frozen and wide-eyed. Then she tugged at my phone, prodding me to take a photo.

“No, he’ll see us,” I whispered.

She put her finger up to her lips and mouthed the words, “get a picture!” Then she ran off to my bedroom.

I didn’t know what to do, so I snapped the phone camera and then joined her in pretend slumber. As I lay, waiting for fake Santa to stop the hoopla, she whispered to me again, “Why is he making so much noise? He isn’t always this loud.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Pretend you’re asleep or he won’t leave the presents.”

She closed her eyes, and I texted Dad: “Enough! You’re overdoing it! Go home!”

“Ho, ho, ho,” he shouted one last time, and then, after I heard him flush the toilet, he finally left.

After a few quiet minutes, while I willed my heartbeat to slow, my daughter popped up and said, “Show me the proof.”

“Why is Santa’s hand on his hip?” she asked, zooming in on the photo and examining his stance in the dimly lit living room. I ignored her, hoping it wouldn’t reveal our ruse.

As 2022 rolled around, I forgot all about the Santa caper. But I did notice Dad was aging. He didn’t Lindy Hop at my son’s Bar Mitzvah this past spring. And because we cut the candle-lighting ceremony, he didn’t have a magnified role in the celebration like he did at my oldest’s. But few weeks ago, as we celebrated Dad’s 73rd birthday in my kitchen, he said, “Christmas is around the corner,” and asked if my youngest had started a list.

“Remember, I saw Santa last year?” My daughter reminded us.

A glint flashed across Dad’s eyes. It had been a while since I had seen it. Thoughts of other special memories we shared when I was a child—Sunday morning pancake breakfasts at The Green McDonalds (I called it that because of the indoor hue) and ice skating at the local park’s rink—swelled my heart.

Later, while Dad spoke to my older kids, the little one asked if she could see the photo, so I pulled it up. “Why is Santa’s hand on his hip?” she questioned again as Dad stood mirroring the same stance.

“I have no idea.” I shrugged. Surely, she knew the truth. But, if she’s willing to keep the magic alive this year, even if just to keep us happy, then so am I.


Holly Rizzuto Palker is a writer, a profiles editor at Literary Mama, a drama teacher, and a mom to three kids and Chilli the dog. Her essays appear in Parents, The New York Daily News, The Independent, Newsday, Kveller, Huffington Post, and more. Holly won Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition awards for her NextAvenue profile, “Women Share Tales at Stories Around the Table,” some of her Parents’ articles, and her short story “Three.” She was recently nominated to serve as a board member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. This essay is adapted from her book-in-progress about her interfaith family.