My nearest sister called me yesterday with some tragic news: her youngest daughter, who is not quite 10, found out the day before that Santa Claus is not real. Or as her newly-enlightened classmate who told her put it, "your parents have been lying to you all this time."
My niece is the youngest member of our collective family, so this sad milestone is particularly grievous, as it is the stark demarcation between childhood and the Real World. This marks the moment in time when all her childhood beliefs and fantasies will come into question under the harsh light of reality and be found wanting. Innocence is set aside and is replaced with sly knowing and a gradual forgetting of that in childhood that is sweet and accepting. As Abby passes through this portal, the generational shift moves perceptibly further down the line. Her newfound knowledge reminds me of my own aging, my own loss of childhood joy, my own crumbling mortality.
The year she turned five, Dear Daughter turned to me while we were decorating our scraggly artificial Christmas tree. It was still just the two of us, living in a small apartment with our little bird and our hopes and dreams. "Mom," she said. "Are you lying to me about all of this Santa Claus stuff? Because if it's not true, I don't want to have a tree or presents or Christmas or anything."
My heart sank to my shoes. Who could have been so mean-spirited as to cast the shadow of doubt in the heart and mind of my sweet, trusting little girl, and at such an early age. I pulled her to the couch and we sat and looked at our tree with its polyglot of ornaments--pine cones rolled in glue and glitter, cut-foam figures coated in buttons and marker, a construction paper reindeer with a preschool photo glued to its flank, and assorted strings of beads and lights. We talked about Christmas--the infant Jesus in the manger, the gift of a loving God. We talked about Advent--the candles, the waiting, the time of examining ourselves. We talked about St. Nicholas of Myra and his care for children and how he came to be the figure we know as Santa Claus.
I told her that Santa is most certainly real. That even if there isn't really a man in a red suit with flying reindeer and sleigh, he is real in the love that makes the miracles of Christmas happen. Santa is real in the excitement and preparation that surrounds the season. Santa is real in the love that we share when we give and receive gifts. Santa is another reminder of the love we are given from God through the baby Jesus. Even though we choose to portray him as a portly old man with a smoking habit and questionable fashion sense, he really looks like love.
Dear Daughter was satisfied with this explanation, and even years later her own eyes were opened by an older cousin, it wasn't a traumatic moment, because she'd already rationalized it in her own mind. Santa still pays his yearly visit to Dachshund Downs, and she's every bit as delighted at 14 by the magic and sweetness as she was at four. I'm sorry to hear that my niece is upset about finding out the "truth," but I know she'll be all right. Santa will still come to her as well, because Santa is love. Santa is magic. Santa is real.