The Republic of T.

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Yes, Parker. There is a Santa Claus?

I suspect these are words I will find myself repeating again and again as a parent: this is happening sooner than I expected. The “this” in question, is Santa Claus.

I was relieved, after reading Dear Prudence this week, that I’m not the only parent who’s dealing with “this.”

Dear Prudence,

My child’s father and I split up when I was five months pregnant, and I’ve raised our 8-year-old son by myself. I’ve always told him that Santa Claus exists. For the past two years, he’s been writing a wish list to Santa and putting it in the mail. Last year, his father told him that Santa does not exist, that it’s a lie parents tell their children, and that parents buy presents and tell the kids they’re from Santa. Two nights ago, my son asked me, “Mommy, does Santa really exist?” to which I replied, “What do you believe?” He said, “Papa told me Santa doesn’t exist, and you tell me Santa does. I think he does, but I don’t know.” I always knew that I would have to tell my son the truth about Santa, but I don’t want him to think that I’ve lied to him all these years. How do I tell my son that Santa doesn’t exist without losing his trust? And what’s there to live for when you don’t believe in all the things that make a moment special?

—Believing

Ugh. Here’s how it happened in my case.

Being seven-years-old now, Parker is right at that point where he’s starting to question the “magic” of childhood. It started when he lost a tooth a few weeks ago, and questions about the tooth fairy abounded. They were the same kind of questions he’d ask about Santa Claus later. How does he get into the house, since our chimney doesn’t really work? How does he know where we live? How does he know who supposed to get which present?

They’re the questions I remembered asking my parents in some form or another. I don’t remember how they answered, which is why I fumbled for my own answer when Parker asked me a more direct question.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Is Santa Claus really just you going out and buying presents in the middle of the night?”

“Huh?” (I heard him he first time, but needed a few seconds more to fumble for an answer.)

“Is Santa Clause really just parents going out and buying presents in the middle of the night?”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Yeah, do you just go out and buy presents in the middle of the night?”

“No, Parker, we do not go out and buy presents in the middle of the night. On Christmas Eve, we’re right here at home with you and Dylan in the middle of the night.”

“Oh. OK.”

Whew! I’m told I have no poker face at all, so I hope it didn’t play out across my face as I was answering Parker’s questions that his presents were already upstairs in our bedroom closet. (I don’t know if he’s graduated to hunting for presents hidden around the house, but he hasn’t looked there yet.)

Of course, the questioning hasn’t stopped there. Here’s the latest:

“Why does Santa write our names in pen on our presents”

“To make sure everyone gets the right presents.”

“So comes to our house and then writes the names on the presents?”

“Well, maybe he writes them at his workshop before he leaves on Christmas eve.”

“All of them? By himself?”

“I suppose the elves might help…”

That exchanged was shortened by the need to extract Dylan from the Christmas tree and replace the bulbs he’d removed and placed in his dumptruck.

But I suspect that’s not the end of it either. My inquiries into the source of his questions got little response, but I suspect that he’s probably heard some of his classmates (who may have figured it out or been told) talking about it. The nature of his questions suggests that he’s figuring it out, or has it figured out. I’m not sure what answers I’ll come up with, but thanks to Prudence, I don’t feel bad about not telling him.

Telling your children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy is not lying—it’s sprinkling a little magic dust on childhood. While people have funny, even poignant stories about realizing none of it is true, I’ve never heard anyone rail against those elementary-school years of deceit. But at 8 years old, your son is coming to the end of his belief that these figures are real. You’ve done a good job handling this, so continue to take your cues from him. If he really seems to want the truth, then tell him. If he’s ambivalent, you can say you’re not going to disagree with his father, but it would still be fun to believe in Santa Claus again this year. When she was 8 years old in 1897, Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun, posing the same question as your son. The editorial in response, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” is one of the most famous ever written, and I’ll let the author, Francis P. Church, have the last words: “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! … There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”

That’s exactly what I want to preserve for both Parker and Dylan.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

I’d much rather let him figure it out for himself and be there support him or at least follow his lead. But I’m not going to be the one to take away a part of the innocence that’s allowed him to look at the world with a sense of wonder and curiosity thus far. The same goes for Dylan. I want to let them be children for as long as childhood lasts, because they’ll grow up soon enough.

And when they do, they’ll learn some bitter truths about the world, no matter how much I’d like to protect them from it. I only hope that preserving the innocence of childhood as long as possible might inoculate them enough to confront those bitter truths about the world and the people in it, without becoming embittered themselves.

The funny thing in all of this is that we’ve never made a big deal of Santa in our house. Parker’s never written letters to Santa. He’s never actually been to the mall to see Santa. Well, we did goto the mall, but Parker never made into line because he was too frightened of Santa to do it and we weren’t about to make him. We have two pictures of him with Santa. One when he was just about a month old, sleeping in his carrier while we snapped it, and one years later when we settled for getting a picture of him near Santa. (Ultimately, Santa never made it into the shot.)

This year he says he’s finally ready to pay a visit to Santa. I’m not sure it’ll will actually happen, since he may decide (once again) not to do it. But if he does, I can only imagine the questions he’ll finally ask Santa himself, if he gets the chance.

2 Comments

  1. When my kids got old enough to start questioning the ‘magic’ Santa Claus I explained that “Santa” is simply the spirit of Christmas and giving. When one person does something caring and nice for another person, that’s being Santa! When we buy a gift for someone we love, or give our time or treasures to charity, that’s us being Santa to someone else. Little kids aren’t mature enough to understand that concept, so we tell them Santa is a person. It’s easier for them to understand. But, now that you are older and starting to realize that people can’t fit through chimneys, you are clearly old enough to understand the bigger meaning of the story. So, it’s not that Santa doesn’t exist, it’s that he exists inside each of us! When I say Santa is real, it’s because I know that I am Santa! When you help me this year to put out the presents after everyone is asleep YOU will be Santa and I know you are real!

    I also explain to them that now that they have learned the ‘grown up’ secret of Santa, they have to promise to not share it with anyone who still believes in the man in the suit, because if that person isn’t grown up enough to understand, they’ll be very sad and disappointed to know that the man isn’t real.

    Oh, and I tell them flat out that if they say out loud that Santa isn’t real, Santa will hear them and will not bring them ANY presents anymore! Santa only delivers presents to people who believe! That keeps them pretty mum on the logical arguments against the reality of Santa Claus!

  2. I was, I think, about 7 or 8 when I figured out that Santa was parents, and I seem to have come to that realization on my own. (Ha!) And yet, the spirit of Santa Claus is still special.

    Santa has a blog (just like everyone else) and shares the story about how he met Blitzen. (There are two more parts not linked, but they’re around somewhere.) The blog is an interesting blend of CEO, impossible spirit of generosity, and hominess. Sometimes too home-y. But I like it better than the Santa Clause movies.

    (I grew up with that column’s annual appearance in the newspaper.)

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