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Irene Zutell Headshot

Growing Up: Santa's Last Visit?

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From the moment she could talk, my daughter, Olivia, questioned everything.

When she was four, she angrily hurled her fairy tale book at the wall because Cinderella made no sense. Olivia explained that if everything returned to normal at midnight, then why is that glass slipper still around?

And for that matter, if stepmothers were so evil and sinister, then why did all their spells have gaping holes? Why could a simple kiss fix Snow White? Same for Sleeping Beauty. And why did Hansel and Gretel forgive their dad at the end? He was going to kill them!

I usually didn't have an answer to her questions because my answers would lead to more questions and more and more. Until exhausted,I would finally say, "It's a fairy tale. What do you expect!"

She would nod and roll her eyes as if that was the silliest thing she'd ever heard.

So why then, at ten, does she still believe in Santa?

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad she does. Ecstatic. But I don't get it. The girl who questions everything, doesn't question that sometime while she's asleep on December 24th, a man in a red suit slips down the chimney with presents.

I want her to believe as long as possible, but I keep waiting for the punchline. Could she be amusing me? Toying with me? Desperately fooling herself so she doesn't miss out?

I really thought Santa would have a short lifespan in Olivia's world.

When she was six, she asked why Santa had the same wrapping paper as mommy.
"Well, umm, I guess he borrowed it and wrapped the presents here."

When she was seven, she asked why the presents had labels from Fisher Price and Mattel.
"Ummm, well, I guess with the population explosion, there aren't enough elves to make handcrafted toys for all the kids."

At eight, she exclaimed, "wow, mommy, Santa's elves must shop for clothes at Target. These are the same brands they have there. And he has the same taste as you do!"

"How weird. I bet they have their very own Target in the North Pole."

She nodded and seemed satisfied with these answers, but I kept thinking, okay, this is it. This is the last year. Definitely.

But nine came and went without incident. And here she is ten--a girl who gets nearly perfect scores on standardized tests. A girl who reads Charles Dickens as if it were Beverly Cleary. A girl who writes stories as if channeling a sixty-year-old woman.

A girl who believes in Santa.

Except for a few late bloomers, she's alone in her belief. She came home just a few days ago to tell me this. She was nonplussed.

"Mom, none of the kids in my class believe in Santa. Anna told me it's really parents giving the kids gifts. Even her mom said so."

And I thought, this is it. This is the moment when another phase ends. Another little childhood death. My heart raced a bit. I felt flushed. I thought, if I can't even tell her about Santa, how will I ever get through the sex talk? I held my breath, thinking of how to break the news as gently as possible.

I was about to speak, but Olivia cut me off.

"Isn't that so stupid? They won't get anything from Santa with that attitude. No wonder Anna's mom has to buy her presents. Santa's not going to stop by that house ever again."

I scanned her face. I'm not naive. I know my daughter. Her look was guileless. There wasn't a hint of doubt in her convictions. But she looked hard at me, waiting for confirmation.

It all ended too early for me. When I was eight, Celia, my teenage babysitter, told my horrified six-year-old sister and me all about menstruation. That same year my neighbor found a book about sex under her mother's bed and showed it to us--pictures and all. A few months later, our beloved paper boy was killed in a car accident.

So after all this, a kid at school telling us there was no such thing as Santa seemed anticlimactic. We already knew about sex and death, so the nonexistence of Santa made perfect sense. It wasn't like, WOW! It was more like, DUH!

My daughter studied me hard. I paused for a moment. Do I tell her the truth like Anna's mom did? Surely, Olivia is just a few days, weeks, at the most months, away from figuring it out. Right? Is it wrong to continue the charade? Will she look foolish in class? Will kids make fun of her? Most importantly, will she resent me when she figures it out? And, on the plus side, if I admit that it's dad and mom, I can take her shopping for stuff she really wants. She can help me wrap her little sister's gifts.

But I want her to believe in Santa for as long as possible. Once Santa disappears, he takes so much with him. I want her to believe in magic and mystery and the possibility of everything because, well, isn't that what childhood is about? Why does it all have to make sense?

So let Anna's mom be a realist, a downer, a killer of innocence. I'm not ready. And if Olivia's the only teenager who leaves milk and cookies for Santa, so be it!

"You're right. Of course Santa won't be stopping by Anna's. Her parents probably buy her presents so she won't feel bad."

Olivia smiled. "That's what I thought. You're lucky that I still believe... I'm saving you a lot of money on presents."

She thought about this for a few seconds.
"But if you want, you can get me presents too."

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