I don't remember ever believing in Santa Claus. My mother believed whole-heartedly until she was quite old -- maybe nine or 10 -- and, as she tells me, she was so utterly heartbroken and disillusioned when she found out the truth, that she wanted to spare me from the heartache. So, though I do have a photo of me on Santa's lap, I think I was too young at the time to really understand who he was supposed to be -- and by the time I was old enough, I knew who he wasn't.
My six-year-old daughter Isabella, on the other hand, is a believer. And this year, her letter to Santa breaks my heart. It's just a short list with a big note at the top that says, in her sweet, first-grader scrawl: "Dear Santa, What I really want this year is to go for a ride on your sleigh."
Ugh. Instant, wretched mommy-guilt. I immediately began trying to figure out how I could fake that. Of course, I can't. And it kills me because I know that no matter what we tell her (Oh honey, Santa can't do that, it's not fair to the other kids ...), she believes in her heart there is a slight possibility that he'll arrive on Christmas Eve to grant her wish, and whisk her off through the sky in his cozy sleigh, the stars twinkling merry Christmas songs and Rudolph beaming his red nose to guide them all the way to the fairyland at the North Pole.
Earlier today, I asked my husband if he feels bad that we taught Isabella about Santa Claus. "Yes," he said immediately. "It's a lie." He's worried that when she does find out the truth, she won't ever believe in magic again. The real kind of magic -- which, the way I think he sees it, is the magic of possibility, of miracles, of all the beautiful, unexplainable things in life and beyond.
"So you wish we never told her about Santa?" I asked. "Yeah," he replied, "I wish we just taught her about The Spirit of Christmas."
Ah yes, the Spirit of Christmas -- a very real and true thing, even for non-religious people like us. And certainly a concept that we'll try to segue Isabella's notion of Santa Claus into, because of course Santa really does exist, in a way, if you think of him as a parable, as an embodiment of giving and generosity. It's just that the truth isn't as exciting if it doesn't come wrapped in a red coat and a long white beard, carried on a magical sleigh.
That's the bald-face lie part. And it's making me more and more uncomfortable as Isabella gets older that I'm telling her a lie when the rest of the time we teach her to be honest and true.
Plus, it's getting harder to lie without being caught out, and the more fibs I have to tell her, the more conflicted I feel. How can I look right in her sweet, trusting face and tell her a lie? And worst of all, what if -- horrible thought - it's really selfish to teach our kids that there's a Santa - what if it's really for our own vicarious enjoyment that we make these stories up?
I know that soon the discrepancies and inconsistencies (Santa has the same wrapping paper as us?!) -- not to mention the whispers of older kids at school -- will all add up to one unavoidable conclusion: Santa Isn't Real. And for that matter, neither is the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy (or -- at our house -- the Birthday Fairies). All this time it's been us, her regular old mom and dad, putting notes and money under her pillows, hiding beautiful Easter baskets in her closet (and trying to remember how many eggs got hidden throughout the house so we don't have any nasty surprises a month after Easter), and sneaking downstairs to stuff stockings and pile presents under the tree.
So. Is the inevitable disappointment not worth these years of magic? Do I wish I never told Isabella about Santa Claus?
In the end, I don't. I can't help but be glad she's experiencing this excitement and wonder. I know it's based on something that's not true, and I know that when she does find out, it'll be disappointing. But the thing is ... there is magic in the world. And there really is a Santa Claus -- in spirit. Every time someone makes a donation, or volunteers in a homeless shelter, or visits a nursing home ... that's the spirit of giving. And the nice, warm feeling we get when we give to someone else - whether it's a gift to our friend or a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on - that's the spirit of giving too. That's what I hope my daughter will carry with her throughout her life.
And, ultimately, there is magic in the way a parent loves a child, and wants to create a world of beauty and light for her. As that brilliant newspaperman wrote all that long time ago: Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
So one day Isabella will know that it was her daddy and me all along ... is that really such a bad thing?
This is cross-posted at BettyConfidential.com