The Day We Became Cynical: How Did You Find Out Santa Isn't Real?

Every child eventually experiences that crushing day when he or she realizes that Santa Claus, that totally implausible overweight gift-giver, is (SPOILER) not real. For those of us who thrive on cynicism, it's almost difficult to remember a time when we could be so joyfully naive—it took us a few years to realize that everything is horrible. Here, we've gathered our stories of the day our innocence died. Please share your own in the comments.

Rich Juzwiak:

From the time that you start understanding who Santa Claus is, everywhere you look are signs that he doesn't actually exist. The Castle Grayskull toy that I found under my parents bed when I was 4? Santa either dropped it off early or my mother got it for him to give me – after all, he didn't actually know me. The kids on my bus who told me there was no Santa Claus? They were no authorities – they were fellow kids. My father confirming it? He was just being mean.

I didn't believe anyone until I heard Phoebe Cates' extremely weird, extremely dark monologue in Gremlins about her father dressing up as Santa Claus, slipping, breaking his neck and getting stuck in his family's chimney for days. Maybe it was the morbidity, maybe it was her delivery, maybe it was the fact that I was so entranced by that movie about impossibly cute, munchkin, music-playing, English-understanding, upright guinea pigs with Persian cat eyes that turned into havoc-wreaking monsters, that I was willing to accept anything it threw at me. When Cates ended her monologue with, "And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus," that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.

Drew Magary:

I was rifling through a drawer in the kitchen when I stumbled on an old note I wrote to Santa. My mom had thrown it in there late one Christmas Eve and then forgotten all about it. And when I saw the note, I was devastated. And I wasn't young, either. I think I was, like, ten. I showed the letter to my older sister because I was so scandalized and she was like, "Yeah, no shit, you moron." BUT HE WAS STILL REAL TO ME, DAMMIT.

Emma Carmichael:

By the time I was in the fifth grade, I really wanted to continue believing in Santa, even though most of my friends had let the magic die by then. My teacher at the time, a wonderful woman named Mrs. Kurty, was facing a growing faction of cynical 11-year-olds. She sat us down that December and had us debate whether or not Santa was real. "If Santa is real," I said at some point during the discussion, "then why do kids who have more money get more presents?" The room went silent and there were lots of grave nods. It was Deep. It was A Moment. Soon after that I remember demanding my father tell me the truth, and then sobbing.

The Day We Became Cynical: How Did You Find Out Santa Isn't Real?My younger brother Joe was more creative about it. He looked in the title page for The Polar Express (greatest kids' Christmas book ever, for the record) at about age 9 and saw "Santa Claus — Fiction." The Library of Congress is evil.

Neetzan Zimmerman:

One day, while celebrating Hanukkah in my home in Israel, I asked my Jewish parents if Santa was real and they said no.

Max Read:

In retrospect I think the first seeds of doubt were planted in my mind when my parents told me that Santa Claus would probably prefer we leave him some beer, rather than milk and cookies. This didn't, exactly, not make sense — Santa Claus is an adult, and adults, I knew, drank Rolling Rock — but it also maybe indicated to me, age five or so, that there was a real Santa Claus, a beer-drinking Santa Claus, who was different from the fake Santa Claus portrayed in rhyming poems and Coca Cola commercials. My guess is that the rest of it fell into place over the next year. I wasn't really sad, though; in fact, I have the sense that I didn't let my parents know I was on to them for at least a couple Christmases after that because I didn't want to make them feel bad — though looking back they clearly weren't that concerned with keeping Santa's non-existence secret.

Mobutu Sese Seko:

I was embarrassingly old. Not into double-digits, but at least a good 18 months past the point where everyone else on the playground had concurred that Santa was a bunch of hooey. I remember balling my fists at my sides and stomping my foot and shouting, "No! Santa is real!" with such certainty and zeal that finding out the truth was immediately mortifying. No plausible deniability. No gradually walking back that claim. At least I'd never claimed that Go-Bots were just as good as Transformers, like that one kid whose parents had gotten him the wrong thing for his birthday and who then spent half the school year deluding himself.

Eventually, my peers' collective insistence got to me. I went home welling with grief that Santa might not be real or that lousy kids could be screwing up the system by not believing in him. I demanded my mom tell me the truth, and she did, once she made sure that I really wanted to hear it. She showed the same helpful, responsible frankness a year later when I insisted on knowing what the hell sex is, and she related the details in both practical and scientific terms. It was light years more helpful than the "Life Management Skills" class I would later be obligated to take in high school, where a shallow, dim, Victoria Jackson-type teacher got around the mandatory curriculum by ignoring large parts and swapping detail with euphemism. "And then Jesus tells the stork, 'Let us take light to make a gift of love!' And the stork throws down his jar of Vlasic pickles, and he sez to Jesus, he sez..."

Funnily, it's the Big Santa Reveal that I think of whenever I get truly exasperated with religious fundamentalists. Faith doesn't bother me; I have too many ministers in the family, went to too many years of Episcopal school and have been immersed in the culture too long. But I remember the intensity of everything I felt—the physical anger that came over me that not only did other kids disbelieve but that they kept saying I looked stupid, because I couldn't cite anything to prove Santa was real. I remember feeling the chasm in my heart that Santa used to occupy and thinking these people had torn him out. In the span of minutes, I felt all those negative things that internet atheists sneeringly and humorlessly ascribe to the faithful. I felt bereft, mocked, embarrassed and under attack. I felt proud of myself for refusing to abandon Santa. And I felt pity, that the universes of all the people around me were that much smaller and dimmer. I try to remember these things whenever someone is telling me that Jesus would want to cut the Department of Education. In a way, I was once That Guy, and everything around me only made me want to be him even harder.

For the record, my mom tried to mitigate the heartache, because she's a good mom. She told me that Santa's still real if we keep him in our hearts. I know she was trying her best, but of course I'd heard that before, at practically every TV and movie funeral. If I had to keep Santa—or anything alive—with the strength of only my heart, the implication was pretty clear. Santa was dead.

Camille Dodero:

Me, age 5: "Is Santa real?"

My mother, a grown woman who still cries every time Santa Claus arrives at the Macy's Day Parade: "Do you really want to know?"

What I really wanted to know was if I was smarter than the other kids, so I said yes and she said no. Then to prove I was smarter, I "accidentally" ruined it for the other kids. I told Ann Pimental Mrs. Claus didn't make her life-sized rag doll, some crafter lady down the street did. I told Jessica W. there was no Santa and made her cry. I told the class during story time about an imaginary world where there was no Santa, it was "just parents," because I wanted them later to realize that I was smarter. But surely all they realized was I was a little asshole.

Robert Kessler:

Growing up half-Jewish at an Episcopalian school, I always had a secret. I was gay, but also I knew that Santa didn't exist - it's the second secret that's relevant today.

This was, for the beginning of my life, a burden I bore all on my own. At my parents' insistence I told no one, so as not to spoil their Christmases. This was, however, until I figured out how to use "The Secret" - not the book - to my advantage. There was a group of boys: they were popular, athletic and at the time I had no idea why, but I was quite infatuated with them.

They didn't care much for me, but they did like two things: the creek at the edge of the playground, and secrets. So on a grey December day, I lead these boys (boys who all grew up to join fraternities and my life made so much more sense) down to the creek to tell them Santa was a big old Christmas Tall Tale. They cried, and I comforted them all. I felt both guilty and self-satisfied for ruining their childhoods. But as I lent each a supportive shoulder I also felt a warm feeling, somewhere just below my stomach. It was something I'd never felt, and wouldn't understand, not until many years later.

Taylor Berman:

I couldn't remember how I learned Santa wasn't real, so I asked my mom this morning. "Jake Thompson," she said right away. Apparently, I was six or seven and minding my own business at an Easter egg hunt when Jake, who is a year older, pulled me aside and said, "You know the Easter Bunny and Santa aren't real, right?" I didn't but, according to my mom, I immediately went inside and asked her. My mom: "I didn't want to call him a liar, so I told you, 'There's a magical thing that goes on...', but you figured it out. And then you asked about the Tooth Fairy." So basically, Jake Thompson ruined my childhood.

My mom is still mad about it, by the way. In fact, she's ranting about it now, as I write. "Jake never had any magic in his life."

Leah Beckmann:

Like many children born under the sign of the menorah, I wanted to throw all my smelly latkes and sour cream in the trash and trade up for a cinnamon stick and politely frosted sugar cookies. My parents kept up the Santa facade so we wouldn't feel left out on a predominately gentile playground, and every Christmas we watched one million Christmas movies. By the time I was ten, literally all I wanted was for Tim Allen to give me a goblet of hot chocolate while I cruised in that gilded sleigh.

The Day We Became Cynical: How Did You Find Out Santa Isn't Real?It was in mid-swing on the monkey bars when Jessica Madden destroyed my life. She was a really cool mean girl and once she made me cry when she made fun of the penny loafers I was wearing (with an actual penny in each shoe, obviously). "Duh Santa Clause isn't real," she said. "Fuck youuuu, Jessica," is what I should have responded. But instead I focused all my energy on continuing to believe in the Tooth Fairy, which I did for at least another two years (which means while some girls were getting their first periods, I was writing letters to my mom about my teeth). This is a letter written from my sister way too late in the game.

Adrian Chen:

When I was seven I became suspicious that Santa wasn't real. I confronted my Mom angrily a couple weeks before Christmas. Mom denied everything. At least until I broke into a full tantrum. "You're right, Adrian," she said with a sigh. "Dad and I are Santa."

I was stunned. My accusation had been based on only a vague hunch—and a hunch I desperately wanted to be untrue. And now Mom had just confirmed it after a few minutes of me hounding her? But my wavering flame of belief was fanned by the tone of Mom's confession, which was the tone moms use when they are sick of arguing with their seven-year-olds and will say anything to make them go play Gameboy.
This tone confused me and I got angrier, to the point of tears.

"Are you REALLY Santa?"

"Yes, Adrian, your Dad and I are Santa." (In that same whatever-you want-dear tone.)

"But, mom, are you REALLY SANTA?"

After ten minutes of this, Mom flip-flopped again and said that she and Dad actually weren't Santa, and that, as her tone suggested, she'd confessed just to make me happy. Having stared into the terrifying abyss of Santa's nonexistence, I accepted this last point with relief. I had overplayed my hand and Mom had expertly called my bluff. I slinked off to play Gameboy.

Still, I had my hunch and I was determined to get to the bottom of it without letting Mom lead me down another psychologically fucked-up hall of mirrors. I needed empirical evidence, something solid to stand up to the adults I'd just learned were equipped with a sociopathic ability to lie when it came to Santa. I came up with a plan.

Christmas morning, we were at my grandparent's house. My sisters and I roamed the wrapping paper wreckage in the living room while my parents drank tea with my grandparents in the kitchen. I went into the kitchen and asked Mom if she could write a phrase on a piece of paper. I fed her a story about how I was playing a game with my sisters or something. What phrase should she write? Oh, just a random phrase like, say, "To Adrian: from Santa." She suspected nothing, wrote out the phrase, and I sprinted back into the living room to compare her handwriting with what was on my presents.

I was shocked. The handwriting was completely different. She hadn't wrapped my presents. Santa was real. The world was a place of wonder where anything was possible after all.

Of course, I didn't consider that the fact the presents weren't wrapped by Mom didn't mean they were necessarily prepared by Santa in his North Pole workshop and not some other non-magical being, like, maybe my dad in our basement. Mom did typically wrap all of the presents for my two sisters and me, but that particular year, she later told me, she'd been so burned out by the end that my Dad did the last batch, which happened to include my presents. So the handwriting didn't match, and I continued to believe.

The next year I found out Santa wasn't real. I don't know exactly how it happened, but I remember not caring too much.

How did your childhood end? And how are you preserving (or ruining) your child's innocence? Share with us below.

Photo: Getty.