When I was six years old, I had asked for a ‘camcorder’ for my birthday with the intention to film Santa Clause. I had no knowledge of what I would later discover to be agnosticism or atheism, I just had questions in regards to Santa that no one seemed capable of explaining, or, in any case, explaining adequately. I didn’t believe that it was possible, for one thing, for deer to fly. The casual acceptance of this among other children my age alarmed me, even then, and, though I did not know it at the time, played a large part in the conditioning of similar, more pressing beliefs. In our childhood, our grasp on how the world works is tenuous at best, at worst non-existent. But I had seen birds and I had seen deer and I had seen planes. Planes and birds shared a common feature: wings. I have yet to see a winged deer. But my skepticism went further.
My father was patient and would indulge me as a child. It amused him more than anything, I think, to answer questions which seemed to delight and surprise him. First, I asked how Santa was capable of knowing whether all the children on Earth had behaved good or bad. And I believe my attitude towards his response speaks to a part of who I am which was already defined: “He just can,” said my father. And, as I still hold true, that answer is, scientifically speaking, complete horseshit.
The experiment with the tape recorder had been building for a couple of years prior. Of course I didn’t tell my father that his explanation was horseshit, but I did continue asking questions. The question for me was no longer if Santa could know whether we were bad or good, but how. First I thought, maybe our parents include a separate letter with our Christmas lists, describing the good or errant behavior of their children, perhaps indicating what we were good enough to get and what our behavior just wouldn’t allow. I would later abandon this theory as I realized that the kind of house a kid lived in greatly determined how much that kid would get for Christmas. The kids in shabby clothes, the stragglers–Santa was different for them. I found this out first hand through my childhood friend, Chris. I would say that we were bad and good to roughly the same degree. But when I got a Nintendo, a bicycle, board games, candy, little battery powered monster trucks, and he got clothes and socks, I understood something, subtly, that I hadn’t yet connected to the Truth.
Noticing that, despite what I thought about behavior, the presents my friends and relatives received seemed to reflect more the niceness of the child’s home than their alleged good behavior. For example, my aunt Virginia (go ahead, laugh damn you!) was a lawyer and her husband was an oncologist. I understood that word to mean “fancy doctor.” And their kids were total jerks, but they got toys one would think Santa should reserve for Gandhi. My cousin Allen, a fifteen year-old blossoming alcoholic and sadist, received a four-wheeler, a pool table, a state of the art cassette player, and basically anything he could spell. He was infamously bad. Everyone in the family knew. And my working theory was this: Santa could only be getting the information from the parents. But this didn’t seem to fit all of the data I collected. So I revised my theory, which would be penultimate: the parents paid [Santa] for their children’s toys based on what they wanted their children to have. I was close, but not quite there.
Anyway, my birthday is the 1st of February, which gave me time to plan the great experiment on Christmas. I asked for a camcorder. For anyone who doesn’t know what a camcorder is, think of it like this: it’s like a football shaped iPhone with one function: to record film and audio. Today if you wanted to re-create my experiment, it’d be a lot easier. But this was 1991, and nary an iPhone to be found, humanity bemoaned its inability to share what they had for dinner with the world. It was a dark time, ravaged by sneakers that blinked ominously like the police-cars of a micro-race, polluted by musicians who would not allow themselves to be touched, a time when the only thing a child could rely on to save them was a Bell on Saturday morning, right after X-Men.
Note: if you get all of those references, congratulations! You’re old!
Now, my birthday came and with it the precious camcorder along with several blank VHS tapes. I read the instruction manual and tried to figure it all out in time for Christmas. I didn’t know what the scientific method was at that age (6) but I had arrived at something similar: I would hide the camcorder under a towel on top of our television, facing the door (we had no Chimney for Santa to scale,) and while we were at our aunt’s for Christmas dinner, I would set it to record. I’m not sure what outcome I expected, but the data was tampered with.
Our family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. First we’d open presents from each other. I’d open presents from my mother and father and brothers and sisters. Then we’d visit my grandmother in the morning. Sometimes we’d visit other increasingly unimportant relatives throughout the day, and then we’d go to my aunt’s for Christmas dinner at night. We’d stay for a few hours. When we got home, we’d find our Christmas presents waiting. The amount of shit Santa was capable of packing into our living room was impressive. A little too impressive. And another wrinkle in the official story: although the entire family could fit easily into our Ford Bronco, my older brothers would always arrive later for dinner than anyone else. Suspicion is like a rash. The more you interact with it, the more it burns.
When I got home, I forgot about my experiment at first. The room was full of the very best the early 90’s had to offer in toys and electric devices, the obligatory bike. I was temporarily stunned by the orgy of evidence that my parents loved me, but I didn’t let that stop me from ruining Christmas forever I would ever meet after that day.
The video of the event confirmed what I knew all along. Santa Claus came through the front door, and waved at what he didn’t (or shouldn’t) know was there, and put on a performance. That’s right: while putting out the toys, my oldest brother found the recording device and, instead of just turning it off, decided hey, gentlemen, shall we fuck with a child? Yes. Yes we shall. A friend of the family was called, dressed as Santa, and brought in all the toys for the sake of my surveillance. This is an example of how one can lie too well.
This good-spirited deception didn’t prove the existence of Santa Clause. I had video evidence, but I was still suspicious. I still had questions. Again I came back to how it could have happened. When you live in a wooded area, an area full of hunters, or, more to the point, in a home where the heads of unfortunately well-endowed deer are mounted on the wall, the reality of a deer’s inability to fly is inescapable.