In Grade 4, my class started a letter-writing campaign to Santa. It was a national initiative led by Canada Post to encourage literacy skills in children. In 1982, the mail carrier pledged to reply to every letter for Santa. Since then, it has received 21.8 million envelopes addressed to the North Pole. Each year, an army of volunteers – as many as 15,000 active and retired Canada Post employees – help write replies to kids across the country.
But I wasn’t aware of all this in the winter of 1996. I just knew that Santa reportedly spoke every language (including Braille) and that his address was “North Pole, H0H 0H0, Canada.”
Some of the kids asked for toys and trips to Disneyland while others hoped for baby brothers and good grades. Many – myself included – hedged their bets by burying their requests in flattery.
“Dear Santa,” I wrote. “How are you? I bet it’s hard work to visit so many children all over the world. You mustn’t overwork yourself. If you want, I can pet-sit your reindeer when Christmas is over. Do they play catch? My mom won’t let me have a dog. By the way, I would like a purple dress with a collar like this.” I included a drawing of the dress.
We received replies shortly before Christmas. When I got home, I tore open the envelope to find a letter neatly printed on festive stationary.
“Dear Sijia,” it read. “Mrs. Claus and I have really enjoyed reading all the letters from good boys and girls like you. The elves are hard at work preparing Christmas presents, and I can hear the pitter-patter of the reindeer on the roof as they practice take-offs and landings. You already know how important it is to be kind and generous to others during this time, but I hope that the spirit of Christmas will stay with you throughout the year. Your friend, Santa Claus.”
I lowered the letter and stared indignantly at my reflection in the front hall mirror. That was it? He didn’t even mention my purple dress. “What’s that?” asked my popo (maternal grandmother). She laughed when I told her. “Santa Claus doesn’t exist,” she said. And just like that, I stumbled onto the biggest conspiracy theory of my young life.
Previously innocent Christmas traditions took on a ludicrous, even sinister tone. For one thing, leaving out milk and cookies for a man who essentially broke into your house on Christmas Eve seemed like questionable behavior. Every adult had a hand in the great Santa industrial complex, especially the nice mailman from Canada Post. “He knows whether you’ve been bad or good,” came the frequent Big Brother-esque warning.
I was a 10-year-old Winston Smith who was determined to expose Christmas. Unfortunately, my parents wholeheartedly adopted the holiday when they moved to Canada. Every Christmas was a multi-family affair with cars haphazardly parked around our driveway, a dining table groaning with Chinese potluck dishes, and an unholy mess of presents piled around the tree.
That year, like so many before, I sat on the couch with childhood friends eating candy canes and watching Ciné-Cadeau (the annual French-language Christmas special). We always made a big show out of unwrapping the presents, posing for photos, and publicly thanking each gifter. I softened as I watched these familiar proceedings. Santa didn’t bring any of these presents, but Christmas went on without him.
We’re are all grown-up now, and we’ll most likely never recapture that feeling until we have kids of our own. However, my parents currently live in Shanghai and my sister is visiting at the end of the month. As long as they’re close, I’m never too far removed from the true meaning of Christmas.
Photos Courtesy of Sijia Chen
This article originally appeared on p9 of the beijingkids December 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com