My mom was Jewish, so as a boy I associated Christmas with my father, who grew up Catholic in New Hampshire. I thought the world of him. He could be quiet and had a temper, but was incredibly devoted to me. He wasn’t religious but loved traditions, especially putting up lights. We lived near Washington Square Park, and he used to tell me that he put the lights on the Christmas tree under the arch. “Hey, did you see the lights today?” he’d say. “I put them up last night.” I believed it way longer than I had the right to! It was very embarrassing but I believed it because I adored my father.
One Christmas Eve when I was six years old, I opened the door slightly to the guest bedroom and saw my father sitting on the floor putting the final touches on a model train set. I had been praying that this present would come, and I was very excited to have the train set, but also felt bad that I had ruined my father’s surprise by stumbling in on him. For a little boy, it was an odd feeling. I felt like I had done something wrong and knew I had to keep this to myself. I didn’t think he’d seen me, so I quietly closed the door and tiptoed down the hallway to my room.
So even though I’d seen that there wasn’t a Santa, I felt I had a responsibility to hide this fact on Christmas morning. I thought about opening my presents as if it was a performance—just like how I get ready for a play now. I was thinking how I was going to open the gift and pretend to be excited and surprised. I always wanted to be an actor (my father was an actor) and I have always thought of this as my first part.
On Christmas morning, I kept checking my parents’ faces to make sure that I was displaying the right amount of excitement.
I remember having a vague empty feeling, like I was pretending to be excited and surprised and not actually being excited and surprised. I knew I was missing a bit of the beauty of that morning because I had spoiled it for myself. In a way, I suppose that’s what happens at some age anyway. To this day when I’m acting, I always feel slightly disappointed, convinced I could have performed better.
My parents looked as though they believed my performance, but I will never know. They may have been pretending to not know that I was pretending. Maybe we were all pretending. That train set was very important to me; I remember setting up the little trees, the little post office, the little people waiting at a train station. But after a while I got bored of the train going in a circle because that’s all it did.
It still makes me feel bad to tell a young child that there’s a Santa, because my word is supposed to mean something. I’m always conflicted about that lie. But in some way, you are trying to keep their childhood going for as long as you can. Forty-nine years later, what I remember most about that day wasn’t the present but my father and my duty to keep the Christmas spirit alive for him. To this day, whenever I walk past Washington Square Park and the Christmas tree under the arch, I see those colored lights and think of him.
Matthew Broderick is starring in A Christmas Story Live!, airing Dec. 17 on Fox.