First published in my Substack newsletter, Unsorted but Significant, in December 2023.
MY PARENTS were university professors. When I was little, I went to a lot of gatherings of university professors. It was a veritable party circuit: There would be university professor chili parties, university professor volleyball picnics, university professor softball games, all kinds of gatherings that were full of university professors and their kids.
There was this one couple, both university professors, that lived near us — the Paulstons. Their house was back in the woods. There was a lot of land around it, and there was a big detached garage and it was kind of a cool little compound. A lot of the university professor parties would be held there.
One year around Christmas, the Paulstons had a university professor holiday party. It was like a lot of holiday parties. There was bobbing for apples. For the adults, there were generous glasses of what was called glögg, because Dr. Paulston the Female was Swedish, and so she knew how to make a mean glögg. The kids would run around in packs, and sometimes they’d interact with their university professor parents and sit on their laps and hang out with them, and sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes we’d run around the grounds and play in the woods.
At this particular Christmas party, we had heard a rumor that Santa Claus was going to pay a visit. I already knew not to believe in Santa Claus. I was about 5, and my parents never inculcated me with the pleasant lie that is Santa. All of my gifts under the Christmas tree bore tags that were signed. “Love, Mama and Daddy.” The dividends of growing up in a largely secular humanist home.
THAT, THOUGH, DIDN’T STOP people from forever observing that my father looked a lot like Santa Claus (when they weren’t saying he looked a lot like Ernest Hemingway or Sigmund Freud).
He had a shaggy salt-and-pepper beard and a pleasingly round face. And although he didn’t overtly smile all that much, his calm cheerfulness and his kindness made up for that. You could easily believe that he was Santa Claus. So in my eyes, my father had become kind of my personal Santa Claus, in the absence of an actual Santa, who of course did not exist.
At any rate, as the evening progressed, we heard (I’m sure through carefully, strategically placed remarks from all the university professors in there) that Santa Claus was going to be paying a visit and he was going to have presents for the kids. What’s more, they were going to be individualized, personalized presents!
This wasn’t, we were assured, some fake department store Santa like the one whose lap I had just sat on at Kaufmann’s, who smelled vaguely of camphor and stale Luden’s cherry cough drops. This was THE Santa who was preparing for Christmas, who would emerge from the woods to visit us and be at the gathering in all its university professor party glory.
So very late that night, probably around 1 a.m. (which means, filtered through the lens of a 5-year-old, that it was about 8 p.m.), the lights suddenly went off.
I looked around for my parents. I couldn’t find them. All the kids clustered together.
Suddenly, outside the window, you could see this figure in a red hat with a big beard and a red coat with a white lining. He came in carrying a bag of gifts so big that it barely fit through the door. The contingent of children watched in rapt silence.
After the requisite booming “Ho, ho, ho!”, Santa proceeded to sit down in the biggest chair in the room and distribute presents to each and every kid. And the presents had our names on them.
There was a present for Ian and a present for Christopher Rolland and, finally, a present for Teddy — that’s me. I was so excited. My gift was a paperback edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, which I had been wanting ever since I’d seen a picture of the guy in India who was the proud wielder of the world’s longest mustache.
I was really excited to get this book. And in my head, I was saying to myself: How could this random Santa know precisely what I wanted?
My deep, abiding belief in my deep, abiding disbelief in Santa was flagging just a bit. I mean, this was a party of university professors. How could a fake Santa come in all the way through the woods and all of a sudden have a gift that I had wanted for quite a while and did the same for all the other kids, too? It just didn’t track. Maybe he was real. Maybe I had been lied to by the secular humanist industrial complex after all.
After a while, Santa went around, had a cookie, greeted some of the university professor parents vigorously. And after about five minutes, with one final “Ho, ho, ho!” he was on his way. He disappeared into the darkness into the woods outside the Paulstons’ house. He had other houses to visit. It was getting late.
Santa Claus had left the building.
AT THIS MOMENT, I was feeling a lot. When I’m feeling a lot, I gravitate toward action.
I was a nosy kid — I’m I’m a journalist today — so I decided to investigate where it was that Santa had gone.
Everybody had resumed the party. The university professors were drinking their glögg, and the university professors’ offspring were playing with their new toys.
I slip out the door through which Santa had most recently departed. I find myself on a little path in the dark that leads toward the separate garage building. I walk toward the garage.
As I look in through the steamed-up window, I have to stretch and stand on my tippy toes to see. Inside, I see a figure. Jackpot: It is Santa.
His back is to me. His red coat is still on. His red hat is still on. But Santa — well, I don’t know quite how to put this — is taking off his pants. I know I shouldn’t be seeing this but I cannot look away. I am like, What’s going on here? Somebody is clearly perpetrating some kind of perfidy upon us. (It is remotely possible that my brain at that age phrased it to myself somewhat differently.)
Santa is struggling mightily to get his pants off over his boots. Finally he does so. Inside the garage, Santa is now in boxer shorts. And I’m looking at the boxer shorts and I’m thinking, My father has boxer shorts quite like those boxer shorts.
Then Santa — or, as I am beginning to think of him, “Santa” — pulls off his big Santa beard and places it on the trunk of the car that is in the garage. His back is still to me. And I’m like, Oh, OK, well, so this is just a random Santa. I was not wrong. Santa in fact does NOT exist. Then Santa pulls on his pants over the boxers. And Santa takes off his coat. And as he takes off his coat Santa turns around and looks straight at me through the window.
And the face of Santa is the face of my father.
Under the Santa beard was his own beard, not quite as long, not quite as white. He was in his early 50s at the time — the age I am today. But there could be no doubt. This was my father.
I retreated into the darkness. I didn’t go back to the party just yet. I was confused. The world was not what it seemed for a moment, and then it was again. I still knew there wasn’t a Santa, that Santa didn’t exist. I knew that people had always said my father looked like Santa. And here was my father, pretending to be Santa. Or wait: Was it Santa pretending to be my father? My 5-year-old mind had ventured into more philosophical realms.
I thought, OK, there’s an easy way to prove or disprove this. I went back into the party. I couldn’t see my father and I went over to my mother, who was sipping glögg and eating a butter cookie at the time if I recall. And I said, Mom (I may have said Mommy at that point), where’s Daddy?
She looked vaguely uncomfortable. “Oh, he’s, um, he just went to talk to someone. He’ll be … He should be back.”
Went to talk to who? I said.
“I don’t know,” she responded.
I was choosing my words carefully. Do you see any connection between Daddy and Santa?
In these sorts of situations, my mother was an extremely rational woman. She looked alarmed, but only very mildly. And she said, slowly, “What sort of connection?”
I lowered my voice. I said: Are they the same person?
She smiled and she took me aside into a hallway. (Editor’s Note: The following dialogue has been reconstructed from memory, in case that’s not obvious.)
“Listen, Teddy,” she said. “I know you know there’s no Santa. Daddy was asked to be Santa tonight for the kids. But there are a lot of kids here who don’t know that there’s no actual Santa. And just like we made the decision to tell you the truth, we don’t want to make decisions for the other kids’ parents. That’s a thing that each kid needs to find out for themselves in the way that their parents think best.”
Letter from my father to his mother, 1974.
She looked down at me and she smiled again. I was still confused for sure. But I was beginning to understand.
As I grew up, I started to realize that this was very on brand for my mother. She had VERY strong beliefs — and she lived them passionately. But one of those beliefs was that she didn’t believe that one person’s beliefs should be inflicted on others. I always admired that. Still do.
“Do me a favor, Teddy,” she said. “Just keep this to yourself for now. You can talk to Daddy about it later. But for now, just let this be our secret.”
I looked at her. She was smiling. I went back into the party and I rejoined the phalanx of kids that was running around playing with the newly distributed gifts from The Man Who Wasn’t Santa.
After a couple more minutes, my father, now mercifully with his pants fully on, re-emerged from some unspecified corner of the room. He looked at me. I looked at him. He winked.
And I, at age 5, still perfectly willing to display public affection to my parents, ran over and gave him a big hug. When he leaned over, I whispered to him — very, very quietly:
“Thanks for the book, Daddy.”
He smiled at me and leaned in. Under his breath, somewhat sheepishly, he whispered: “Ho, ho, ho.”
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
Where the Spirit Might Dwell
In undoing the architecture of my late parents' everyday lives and deciding what to discard, was I committing a small…
Close, But No Cigar Band
The curious, tobacco-inflected correspondence between my adolescent grandfather and Mark Twain.
The Mysterious Melissa
An amateur photographic investigation, undertaken from the future.
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
© 2023 Ted Anthony