As far as immigrant Hindu parents go, mine were pretty good at pretending they gave a damn about Christmas.
We did the tree, we did the Polaroids with Santa, we even did the stockings (though instead of stuffing them with dollar-store toys and clementines, my mom hung them limp and empty on the tree).
"I think we're supposed to eat turkey," I told her after Mickey's Christmas Carol tipped me off.
"I hate turkey. It's so dry and bland," she said. So we'd eat chicken curry instead.
I'd write letters to the North Pole, detailing the year's requests, complete with cutouts from the Consumers Distributing catalogue. Most of the time, Santa delivered (though there was the one year I asked for a Cabbage Patch Kid and got a Chinatown knockoff instead).
Holiday commercials from cookie manufacturers taught me and my brother to leave out a glass of milk and Oreos on a plate on Christmas Eve. In the morning the cookies and milk were gone. Once, there was even a note from Santa expressing his gratitude for the midnight snack. He left a few carrots for us, explaining that they were leftovers from feeding the reindeer.
My brother sneered. "From the reindeer? Gross, I'm not eating those."
My mom peeled them and I giddily scarfed down those magical root vegetables. From the North Pole! How exotic! And then, when I was 8, we moved from Toronto to Winnipeg. We brought the tree, but left all the ornaments and holiday decor behind. When December hit, I started to get nervous.
"So, um, about that tree. Are we putting it up?" I asked.
"You're going to put up a tree with nothing on it?" my dad asked. "Not worth it. Not this year."
It sat in the basement untouched.
Would Santa skip over our house? I wondered. I was already a pretty neurotic kid, but this sent my anxiety into overdrive as the weeks wore on. We made decoupage ornaments in art class, but I had nothing on which to hang them.
We spent Christmas Eve at a family friend's house - it was their son's birthday. My eyes were on the clock as the men refilled their scotch glasses. "We should leave," I whispered to my mom, assuming that if we weren't home Santa would definitely skip our house.
We walked in the door at midnight. No presents in sight. I checked the kitchen (maybe he left them on the counter?), the dining room (under the table?), the living room (in that corner by the potted plants?). Maybe he was just running behind. Yeah. That's what it is.
My mother, looking exhausted, told my brother and me to wait downstairs while she trudged up to her bedroom. She came down toting two bags from The Bay (contents boxed, but not wrapped) and presented one to each of us halfheartedly. Mine contained a pair of green corduroy pants and a turtleneck with a micro floral pattern.
What was this?
"I guess you've figured out by now that Santa isn't real," my mom said with a yawn and went up to bed.
The world slowed down. I looked to my brother to see if he was as horrified as I was. He was unfazed.
Wait, was this true? The balloon I'd filled up with my beliefs over the years was zooming around the room as the air hissed out of it.
My parents seemed relieved that the jig was up. They'd done their part - taken it way further than most non-Christians would have. Still, I felt cheated. I wanted to be one of those poorly adjusted kids who believed in Santa well into the double digits.
When my parents gave up on the Santa ruse, they gave up on everything else, too. By the time my brother was away at university, I was the only one interested in seasonal pageantry.
I put up the tree for the last time when I was 17. I lugged the box upstairs from the basement, assembled it and trimmed it with decorations bought on clearance at Zellers the year before. I watched The Family Man (yes, that Nicolas Cage masterpiece) for company while my parents were out grocery shopping. A friend called and asked what I was doing. "Putting up the Christmas tree."
"Oh, you're busy with your family! I'll let you go," he said.
"Nope. Just doing it on my own. That's Nic Cage you hear in the background."
I suddenly felt empty, like I was doing all this for an eight-year-old who didn't actually exist. I decided that day that I'd save it until I had a real eight-year-old to fuss over.
And I'm going to let that kid believe until she's in her double digits.