He never believed in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, either. There are three important reasons why Daniel and I decided, before Nicholas was born, that we were not going to pretend that any of these characters were real.
The first is that we didn’t like the idea of lying to our child. We felt that claiming these characters were real, when we know they aren’t, would kind of make us feel bad. Our child should be able to trust us. Now that we’ve met the individual child we got, we know he’s a very analytical type who easily figures out what’s going on and demands full explanations of processes. He was hard to confuse with things like Piaget’s famous conservation experiments even when he was a toddler. The first time he ever saw a stage magician, he immediately started trying to figure out how to do those tricks. If we’d presented the fables as truth, we’d have been interrogated with years of questions about exactly how those reindeer fly to every house in one night, where the bunny gets the eggs, etc., etc.
The second reason is that we wanted him to appreciate, from the very beginning, that holiday magic is something we all make for one another. Christmas gifts aren’t brought by a guy in a sleigh to whom money is no object; we spend hours choosing or making gifts for our loved ones, thinking about what each person would like, as a way of expressing our love and respect for each other. Easter isn’t about a magic bunny who brings us candy for no apparent reason; Easter is about Jesus and the springtime renewal of the world, and Grandma likes to send us some candy. Losing a tooth is an exciting step toward maturity that is honored with a little treat, and there is a traditional routine for collecting this treat from your parents overnight using a special marsupial (Tooth Beary) crocheted by Grandma.
The third reason is that I wanted to teach my child my religion. (Daniel does not belong to an organized religion, so the deal was that I could take Nicholas to church and teach him my faith until such time as he might tell me he didn’t believe it and didn’t want to go. By age 3 he had decided he definitely wanted to be an Episcopalian, and he was baptized.) If I told him Santa Claus was real, and he then found out otherwise, he would then logically doubt what I’d been telling him about God being real. After all, the invisibility and super-powers of God are not all that different from what people attribute to Santa. As I mentioned last week, Nicholas has shown no signs of doubting the existence of God but has remarked on the oddity of people believing in these other entities while not believing in God.
So, without Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, poor Nicholas has had a really dreary, cynical childhood, huh? Well, no! We can enjoy pretending even when we all know we’re pretending. We read aloud “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and watch TV specials about Santa. Nicholas awakens on Christmas morning to a stocking stuffed with things that weren’t there when he went to bed. When he was little (I admit, I’ve slacked on this the past couple of years) he awakened on Easter morning to a cleaned-up living room with all his stuffed bunnies arranged in the middle of the floor around the Easter candy and JESUS IS RISEN spelled out in blocks. Each time he’s lost a tooth and placed it in the pouch of Tooth Beary, he’s awakened to find the tooth replaced by a coin. He knows these things are done by his parents sneaking around after bedtime, but they’re still fun and magical-feeling. As he gets older, he’s wanted to be more involved in making the magic, often starting weeks before the holiday to make a special table display or other decorations. Since age 6, he’s made some stocking stuffers in secret and dropped them into the stockings when nobody was looking.
But doesn’t a non-believing kid ruin it for everyone else?
This possibility has been the one big downside to our approach. After Thanksgiving in his first year of preschool, I explained to Nicholas that many kids his age believe Santa Claus is actually real. While we may think that’s silly, it is important to them, and we don’t want to make them sad by telling them they’re wrong. This worked fine–Nicholas refrained from smirking over his classmates’ beliefs in their presence, although we heard a lot about it at home! I gave him the same caution before Easter. The next year, though, Santa was mentioned earlier than I anticipated, and Nicholas made a cynical comment that apparently sparked a near-riot among the four-year-olds! We were called to an urgent conference with the school director about Respecting Others’ Beliefs. We spoke firmly with Nicholas about the need to keep quiet or go along with the Santa pretending. I also read him On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which includes this very wise and helpful passage:
“The older you are, the more you know about Santa Claus,” [Ma] said. “You are so big now, you know he can’t be just one man, don’t you? You know he is everywhere on Christmas Eve. He is in the Big Woods, and in Indian Territory, and far away in York State, and here. He comes down all the chimneys at the same time. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Ma,” said Mary and Laura.
“Well,” said Ma. “Then you see–”
“I guess he is like angels,” Mary said, slowly. And Laura could see that, just as well as Mary could.
Then Ma told them something else about Santa Claus. He was everywhere, and besides that, he was all the time.
Whenever anyone was unselfish, that was Santa Claus.
Christmas Eve was the one time when everybody was unselfish. On that one night, Santa Claus was everywhere, because everybody, all together, stopped being selfish and wanted other people to be happy. And in the morning you saw what that had done.
That helped him to understand that there is something real about Santa Claus and that he can be part of it. Bragging about how you’re too smart to believe in the man with the red hat is a selfish act that doesn’t contribute to the Christmas spirit, so put your focus on being Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas!) to the people around you.
How dare we deprive our child of the holiday magic we enjoyed when we were kids?
Daniel and I thought long and hard about whether we ever truly did believe in the imaginary holiday characters or were more sort of cooperating hopefully with the traditions. It’s hard to remember exactly how our thinking worked when we were very small, but I can tell you that by kindergarten, I was certain that Santa was something we were all pretending about–and that pretending was tons of fun! Daniel has vivid memories of setting traps to catch Santa–but, although there was a fireplace in the room where the gifts would appear, he always set the traps across the staircase, so he must have been at least subconsciously aware that the true gift-bringers needed to get down the stairs! (It’s a wonder his parents survived.)
My mom used to tell me stories about how when she was little, if she cleaned up her room, the brownies would come and dance in the cleared space and leave tiny notes “in handwriting that looked a lot like my mother’s, only smaller.” That told me who was really happy about the clean room! I think I transferred that skepticism to fairies in general, so that by the time I was losing teeth I was aware that the Tooth Fairy was imaginary. I did feel some doubt about that when I lost both my top front teeth on the same day, and the Tooth Fairy left me two Susan B. Anthony dollar coins–surely my parents would never be so generous! Maybe there really was some magic involved? My best friend was inspired, and the next time she lost a tooth, she folded it up in a note: Dear Tooth Fairy, Please bring me a dollar or more. She awoke the next morning to find no money, only a note in tiny fairy writing: Dear Amee, Greedy little girls do not get gifts from the Tooth Fairy. Ha!
As for the Easter Bunny…meh. Easter was fun, but we dyed eggs as a family, and my parents hid them just before the hunt. I think we set up our baskets the night before and the candy appeared in them overnight, but that was easy to explain, with parents who audibly moved about the house after my bedtime every night.
What is magical about the holidays is getting to do special things that we don’t do at any other time of year, and getting to do them all again, laced with happy memories of previous years. Sometimes I’ve been surprised at what aspects of the festivities Nicholas remembers and thinks are important traditions to repeat annually (we now HAVE to ring in the new year with chocolate ice cream sodas!) but the general idea is clear: We are together, doing what we do at this season, to celebrate this season again. Holiday magic isn’t just for children, and it doesn’t require fairies, but it is real.