I was 13 years-old when I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real.
It was Wednesday inside the four white walls of a mid-city casting office in LA and I was wearing the most expensive outfit that I owned: a Juicy Couture velour hoodie the color of ripe cantaloupe and a light wash denim skirt with complicated pockets—you know,when complicated pockets were in. The casting director yelled “rolling,” and I started the slate.
“Hi, I’m Heartleigh Little.”
I swallowed nervously, trying not to choke on my words as the questions began to roll in.
“How old are you?” 13.
“Where are you from?” Malibu.
“What are your plans for the holiday?” Spending Christmas at home with my family.
“So, when did you find out that Santa wasn’t real?”
Thinking maybe I heard the question wrong, I cocked my head first at the panel of adults sitting across from me, then over at my mom. My heart sank. The camera was still rolling as I answered in a shaky voice: “I guess…right now.” I still vividly remember that feeling, that chill, that hot flush of embarrassment that followed, the armpits of my Juicy jacket moist with sweat. Later in the car, I sat sobbing as my mom apologized; she didn’t know that I still believed—I didn’t realize I was playing a game of Christmas chicken.
My parents were young when they had us—two kids before 26. Because of that, we were all growing up together and I wasn’t really sheltered from the realities of life. But once a year, when Santa came, we had pure fucking magic. Sure, I had heard rumors from the kids at school, I just didn’t believe them. I felt bad for my friends whom Santa didn’t visit, those whose gifts came tidily wrapped by mall personnel and were opened on Christmas Eve before jetting off to Miami or Hawaii or someplace tropical. I, on the other hand, had a wonderland under my tree come the morning of December 25; unwrapped gifts arranged in our living room and stockings stuffed over the fireplace with sooty footprints from Saint Nick. In our house, Christmas was the work of a professional—all the way down to the vintage reindeer bells and half-eaten crudite in the yard. The thought of it kept me up at night, consumed with the faith that he was coming, that he was real.
If you think about it, 13 is pretty late to stop believing in Santa. At 13, I had my period, had kissed boys, was watching R-rated movies, and my friends were smoking pot. But it was never really about Santa. It was about losing the last shred of innocence that I had left—that annual excitement and joy around what the day would bring. The ruse was up. I wonder now if I could track down that casting director and find the tape of the moment that my life changed. It sounds dramatic, sure, but it was the moment that I stopped having faith, stopped believing that life was anything more than an existence drowned in pragmatic reality. It was also a turning point in my relationship with stuff; I stopped seeing things as symbols of status or value or an idea and instead just as items that I could or couldn’t possess. That influenced my feelings about fashion, too. Something I had once loved for its fantasy and air of the unattainable felt all of a sudden within reach. The idea of it was no longer the predecessor. And that’s something that fashion does so well—leading with an idea, a marketing campaign, a personality or an evocation of emotion. It’s smoke and mirrors, just like my man from the North Pole.
Fourteen years later, with the help of maturity and hindsight and years of therapy, I think Santa actually saved me. The year that marked my loss of innocence and those that subsequently followed gave me a clearer understanding of consumerism – one that’s quite healthy. The magic that I felt surrounding Santa can be likened to our modern definition of hype. And hype – especially in the fashion industry – runs rampant. It’s easy to think that every fashion editor has a Devil Wears Prada style closet brimming with the newest and the next best thing on rotate every season. And many do. I don’t. I appreciate fashion for its craft, its messaging and its power to express. But by the same hand, I know that its essence starts and ends with material substance.