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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I still remember the day my innocence was shattered by babyGap, the land of my childhood nightmares. It was a miserable pre-Christmas afternoon in the early 2000s. My mother had brought my two younger brothers and me to the mall to “shop” – an experience as notoriously enjoyable as a snowball to the face. Mom would pilot the bulky stroller containing my youngest brother, her purse and pounds of miscellaneous debris in the under-seat basket, while my other brother and I, close in age, would orbit the stroller, taking turns sulking or running off to explore something shiny in the distance.

It cannot be understated how gruelling, how tedious, it was to be taken to the mall at this age. Each store was a claustrophobic labyrinth of folded fabrics, full of strangers who didn’t want me around. I was always being told not to run through aisles, climb shelves or crawl under the revolving racks – even for the noble purpose of leaping out and scaring my brother as he walked by. When I would get tired of standing around while my mother endlessly peered from one garment to another, I was forbidden from lying across the empty storefront ledges, for reasons that remain unclear to me.

That fateful day at babyGap, as I wandered by walls of baby-sized sweaters, I stumbled upon a sign attached to a bin of tiny socks. It said “stocking stuffers.” I was shaken like a snowglobe. Why would mothers like mine be buying anything to put in a Christmas stocking? The gifts in my stockings were always personally hand-picked by Santa Claus. Or so I had been led to believe …

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Could the brutish outbursts from the worst boys in my class contain some kernel of truth? Had my parents, all these years, been staging a merry hoax? What about the other adults in my life who’d asked me if I was in good standing with Mr. Claus? I’d written that guy letters! And he had responded! If this was some twisted deception, how many others were in on it? What if the only reason this didn’t go all the way to the top – the North Pole itself – was because there was no top? I can admit that I had already been wrestling with some Santa-suspicion. Seeing this display, I was now a full-blown skeptic. What other interpretation could there possibly be?

More horrifying still, this store was promoting socks – socks! – as something a kid would want to discover on Christmas morning. It just kept getting worse and worse.

Like snow in an avalanche, the clues compounded. How was Santa in all the malls at the same time? I’d assumed it was the same magic he used to visit every home over one night, but why, then, did Santas in different malls never look quite the same? How come their suits would be varying shades of red, with white beards of varying lengths?

If everything from Santa was supposed to come from a workshop manned by elves, what about those price stickers? Those squares of smeared glue or stubborn patches of smudged paper. Maybe, in the new millennium, some things can’t be fastened together by elf fingers? Maybe even Santa runs to the Walmart in the North Pole every now and again. I was too polite a kid to make a whole thing out of it.

Back at home, I thought about this some more. Holiday ads featuring Santa suddenly made more sense. Like the one with the red and yellow M&Ms. When they run into Santa, the red M&M is so surprised Santa exists, he faints from shock. I had always thought it was a given that Santa was real, yet the premise of the commercial seemed to be universal doubt.

In previous years, I’d seize the toy store’s flyer and circle gift ideas with a thick marker and giant pointing arrows – somehow glossing over the dollar signs and prices right there in print. I had missed all the signs. The red flags were there, but I had misinterpreted them as seasonally appropriate. If only they sold tree ornaments that read, “Baby’s First Conspiracy.”

Twenty-odd years later, I’ve never forgotten what it was like to come across those words and have reality as I knew it collapse like a cheap gingerbread house. And I wonder if, as we start another holiday-shopping season, retailers can be a bit more Santa sensitive?

If so much of the world has to be changed by COVID-19, can’t we change this, too? Let’s think about the responsibility we have to children who’ve already missed one year of festive spectacle and tradition. Those little ones whose propensity to believe is what makes this time of year so profitable for so many. There’s only a slim window where the acceptance of magic is a matter of habit and the world of commerce should not have a role in narrowing it.

We are given so few Christmas mornings for screaming wildly while running barefoot toward a fireplace mysteriously absent of bootprints. We will get plenty of Christmases to sleepily drag ourselves to our stockings and draw out a new pair of quality socks, and find ourselves sincerely pleased.

Jessica Goddard lives in Toronto.

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