Santa Claus and the Death of Innocence

A few nights ago, my 8-year-old son looked me dead in the eye and said, “Is Santa Claus real? Tell me the truth.”

I kind of froze. I wasn’t ready.

It all started with a question about the elves. You see, years ago, my husband started it all by continuing a tradition that had begun when he was a child. While Christmas morning always brought presents from Santa Claus, Christmas Eve morning began with gifts from the elves. These were usually stocking stuffers and other small things, but as with so many of Ivor’s traditions, they grew bigger with time.

Over the six Christmases Ivor and Josiah shared together, that holiday had evolved into an epic expression of childhood fantasy, not to mention adult extravagance. Ivor would begin researching catalogues months in advance, strategically mapping out a multi-pronged approach to satisfying all of his son’s creative, educational and fantastical needs and desires, real and projected. (To say it was over-the-top and rather overwhelming for me would be to put it lightly, and would definitely be the start of a whole other conversation).

The salient point is that we always went with the whole fantasy – the half-eaten cookies on the plate in the morning, the magical appearance of a room full of toys, along with the requisite wonder and mystery of how did it all really work?

And now, his dad is gone, and our son is asking me to tell him, yes or no, I’ll be OK with either answer, I just want you to tell me.

This past Christmas, the second one without Ivor, was a tough one for a lot of reasons. First of all, I had just barely gotten past a period of being out of work for nearly six months, and though I had recently started a new gig, I had not yet begun to dig myself out of enormous debt. Gone were the heady, glory days of Chritmases past. That kind of extravagance (which had become increasingly unsettling to me anyway), was definitely not due for a replay any time soon, and I was cool with that.

However, another kind of malaise had settled in – the realization that I really had to shoulder the burden of creating these magical holidays for our son all by myself, and with that, a feeling of being completely overwhelmed and understaffed. I actually could have used some elves of my own!

When Josiah woke up excitedly on Christmas Eve morning, I looked into his bright little eyes and realized I had made a terrible mistake not preparing anything. I mumbled something about the elves having had some problems the night before, but to hold on, because I think they might have left something… and then, while he waited patiently in his room, I scrambled to get some of the smaller items I had purchased into the stockings I had hung up. It was a close call, but I managed to salvage the moment.

For some reason, that incident was the subject of his inquiry the other night, and I was suddenly faced with this very seminal moment in his development. He was demanding black and white answers to questions that, in my mind, are more metaphorical in nature.

How could I explain the concept of Santa Claus and the elves to an 8-year-old? How could I explain that mommy and daddy haven’t been lying to you, we’ve just been providing you with a magical experience? How do I explain that there are mysteries in life that we can’t explain, but we nevertheless believe in them because they help our lives make sense and bring us joy and fulfillment? Belief is such a relative thing, and yet we all have our own, some more provable than others.

I’m pretty sure that what upset me most as I looked into those glistening brown eyes, wide and open with trust and dependence on me and my word, was that I saw that my little boy was growing up. I saw in that moment, that I might potentially say something that would crush his trust in me, or his belief in magic, or his joy in living and embracing each new day with wonder and anticipation.

He begged me for something. He wanted a yes or no. I said, “What do you think the answer is?” He said, “My spirit tells me no, but my heart wants it to be yes.”

Now I realize he was only asking me about the elves, but he was already making the connection to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. In fact, that also happened to be a night when we had placed a tooth under his pillow, and I had made sure to have singles in my wallet in anticipation of making the tooth/money exchange after he fell asleep. When he began connecting the dots to all of these other things, I said, “I’m not ready for this conversation now,” and he said, “OK, we can save it for in the car tomorrow.” When I began to cry, he said, “It’s OK mom, I’m here for you.”

I left the room momentarily to go wash my face. I thought I’d be more composed when I returned, but it didn’t happen. I couldn’t get it together enough to read to him. Instead, we opted for me holding him and just talking. We told some stories, starting with me remembering the magic of him as a baby. Of course that led into talk about the magic of us naming him years before he was even born, and that let to remembrances of Daddy, and then to his tears. It was a teary night, indeed…

What is lost and what is gained as we move from innocence to insight? We were all children once. How did each of us navigate the transition to adulthood, the yearning to know more, the willingness to continue believing in magic or not? When I communicate about these things to my son, how much is about me? How much is about him? What is the truth? Is there a truth?

My truth is much more complicated than he needs to be concerned about. For him, all it needs to be about is feeling safe, feeling loved, and feeling heard and understood. I want him to know that I am here for him, and he can trust me. And I suppose, now I need him to know that life changes, and continues to change, and his perception of the world, and life and love will continue to grow and change. And magic? Well, I know I believe in magic. I want him to believe in it, too… So did his Dad. And that’s kind of how this whole thing started.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, I noticed that despite the appearance of $3 under his pillow, Josiah seemed kind of lethargic. I decided to pick up our conversation and try to explain a bit about how we change the way we think of Santa Claus the older we get. I also explained to him that he was getting older now and with age would come more of an understanding of the world, an increased opportunity to take responsibility for himself and his choices, and the chance to experience more and more grown up kinds of adventures.

Somehow this seemed to reassure him, and he perked up tremendously. He also remarked that the Tooth Fairy must be really busy to be able to get around the way she did to all the kids who were losing teeth. It seems we still have a little time to enjoy some of that innocence together after all.

Photo courtesy of flickr4jazz

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4 Comments to “Santa Claus and the Death of Innocence”

  1. Wow, this post is really touching and interesting to me because I remember being a youngin’ and always skeptical of my mother and her tales of an alleged “Santa Clause.” I would spy on her and search for hidden presents and I would bake cookies and stay up and hide behind the couch to see who would eat them. I asked my mom how could Santa actually bring presents here, when we don’t have a chimney? To which she would reply, “He comes in through the balcony.” Then it was a completely different story when I pointed out that not everyone had balcony’s. The weird thing is, even though I never believed in Santa Clause I always enjoyed the spirit of the holidays and the spirit of giving. The fact that my mom went through so much to make me believe in magic and fairy tales only made me appreciate and love her more! No worries, Josiah will know with age just like every child knows with age that the mystic and fantasy of being a child supersedes truth and reality. He will understand and love you more for great work!

    fantastic post!

  2. Thanks Kalae… It makes me feel good to hear that. I kind of got onto a roll with the whole Santa Claus thing and never really considered how the transition out of it would actually take place. Sometimes kids can really surprise you when they are suddenly ready to make some sort of leap and you’re not quite prepared. I learned that waiting to answer was probably the best thing I did in this situation. I had a chance to think about it and get some more input before saying anything I might regret. But mostly it was good to be reminded that even if they’re asking for a “yes or no,” what they really want is that love and reassurance. And sometimes we can provide that to them in ways they can’t even imagine. Parenting is such a supreme adventure… 🙂

  3. “How could I explain that mommy and daddy haven’t been lying to you, we’ve just been providing you with a magical experience? How do I explain that there are mysteries in life that we can’t explain, but we nevertheless believe in them because they help our lives make sense and bring us joy and fulfillment?”

    This is about as good a description of parental intent in participating in cultural developments in traditional celebration as I’ve read, Deb. I don’t ever remember believing in Santa Claus, although I hold other hopes for powers I can’t prove, and I participate yet in some of those movements. Adult Josiah, informed by maturity, will look back on the magical times of his youth and probably remember, above all else, the love.

  4. Mark, as a seasoned parent, I know you know. Ya know?
    I truly hope that someday, when he’s complaining to his therapist, the memory of the love will kick in…

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