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“Santa Is Scary!” How I Accidentally Ruined Santa for My 4-Year-Old

Scary santa

When my wife and I decided to be a pro-Santa Claus family, there was no small amount of discussion and consternation. Did we really want to lie to our child at such a tender age? Did we want to undercut the bonds of trust between parent and child? Did we actually want to buy into the naughty-or-nice punishment-and-reward system that the Santa Claus myth entails?

The answer was...YES! Santa Claus is awesome and Christmas is fun, and the truth is that we didn’t think twice about it. Running around behind your child’s back and putting together toys half-in-the-bag on eggnog is a blast. My wife and I were in on the Santa scheme from the get-go.

And honestly, watching your kid wake up on Christmas morning and sleepily wobble to the nest of presents waiting for her makes the whole Santa Claus lie worth it.

That said, though, we haven’t been above using the storied powers of the jolly fat man for our own purposes. Like any self-respecting parents, we sometimes use the threat of a present-less holiday to help Little E improve her attitude. And in general, the fake-out works as well as can be expected.

This year, however, my wife took the Santa threats a step further: She changed the caller ID of her best friend’s number to “Santa.” Kiddo acting up? Just text your best pal and magically “Santa” calls from the frigid North Pole to check in on your child’s behavior—proof positive (to a four-year-old anyway) that Santa really is invested in finding out who’s naughty, who’s nice, and who’s getting a stocking full of wet pine needles for Christmas.

Of course, empty threats soon lose their teeth—which is when things got complicated.

I was at work when I got the call. My wife sounded like she was phoning from the bottom of a well with a pair of screeching weasels perched on her shoulder. Apparently Little E and her best friend were revolting against having their face paint washed off and their toenails clipped. The “Santa” caller ID, so effective in the past, wasn’t working—according to my wife, it was now time to give fake Santa life.

“Call me back and pretend to be Santa Claus!” my wife screamed. “I’ll put you on speaker phone.”

Nobody turns their nose up at the chance to play Santa, least of all me. I had been preparing for this role—this grandiose farce—since Little E came out of the womb. I ratcheted my voice down a couple notches, rasped it up like the Marlboro man, and prepared for my moment inside the red suit. There were the requisite “Ho Ho Ho’s,” the delicate threats, the creepy omnipotence. (With all due modesty, I think I was great.) Most importantly, the kids bought it. Before the phone call was even over they were scrubbing the paint from their faces and begging to have their nails lopped off—whatever was necessary to get back into the good graces of the big man up north.

I was cocky, though, and forgot a golden tenant of parenting: Like Skynet from the Terminator franchise, children, too, can become self-aware. And that night as we were wrapping up our final bedtime story of the night, Little E looked up at me sheepishly, obviously consumed with a thought.

“Why,” she asked me, “does Santa Claus hate face paint?”

I struggled to come up with an answer. In the midst of my mumbling, she fired off another unanswerable: “Is Santa Claus going to cut my toenails off in my sleep?”

And there it was. In my attempt to game the system, I had overwritten a beloved, gift-giving do-gooder and created a nightmare man who breaks into houses at night and lops off dying keratin appendages. I felt horrible.

It’s t-minus 10 days to Christmas and I still can’t get Little E to stop wearing her socks to bed. She’s too scared. Looks like this year, in addition to the little ponies and doll clothes she actually asked for, my little girl will be getting one more super-secret surprise: a dad who never again plays the part of Santa Claus.

I never looked good in red, anyway.
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