Yes, sweetheart, there is a Santa Claus. Maybe.

It’s a question I knew would come, of course. Like How are babies made? or Can I borrow the car?, it was filed away somewhere under Questions I Should Be Prepared For (crossed-referenced under Buy More Chardonnay). But I didn’t expect it at three.

Mom, is Santa real, or just a guy dressed up in a costume?

Keep in mind this came right on the heels of Halloween, when fears peaked with a 4am discussion about vampires. Girl Powers has always been highly imaginative and also pretty fearful, two qualities that seem to go together at this stage where the imagination can very well create scenarios for which a preschooler’s rational brain is just not yet prepared. At the crosshairs of these two qualities – imaginative and fearful – lies an earnest desire to know exactly. what. is. real. As much as she likes to pretend, she also likes to know where the boundaries are between role play and real life.

As a young toddler she was terrified by anything that seemed to occupy both the imaginary and the real worlds: Tickle Me Elmo (every one-year-old’s prized possession, right?) had to be hidden from sight and permanently shut off at our friends houses. And the life-sized licensed characters and mascots who had every other toddler’s rapt attention were absolutely out of the question.

It’s either real or it’s not. Where there is blur, there is fear.

And so, we’ve become really good at helping her sort out what is real and what is pretend. As Bryan points out, now that she understands a bit about dinosaurs, there are really three options: real, pretend or extinct. We managed to get through the Halloween season this way, assuring at every turn that the dress-up was for fun and the creatures in the books were all pretend. Just pretend.

And now here we are with the Santa question, a good two or three years before I think most kids even care to wonder.

Mom, is Santa real, or just a guy dressed up in a costume?

Well, that’s a good question. [Classic mommy-stalling technique, right?] The Santas that you see around town, at the malls, on TV commercials, yes, they are regular people dressed up in costume. Now, if you’re asking whether there really is a Santa at the North Pole who brings presents on Christmas Eve, well, that’s something magical that a lot of people love to believe. I remember loving to believe that when I was little.

That was good enough for her. I don’t actually think she cares how the presents arrive on Christmas morning; she really was just trying to sort the costumed character into one of her boxes: real, pretend or extinct.

The categories help her feel safe, tethered to some semblance of reality in a world that she’s still figuring out, but I do wonder if they mean there is less room for magic overall. I remember sleeping on the couch in my grandparents’ basement during the Christmas I was five, and hearing the bells. I swear I heard the bells. I don’t actually remember hearing them now, but I remember telling everyone the next morning that I had heard them, and believing it 100%. I wonder if she’ll even remember ever believing in Santa.

But I also don’t want to be the sole supplier of magic. I don’t want to tell her that the mall Santa is the real Santa’s helper. I don’t want to have to explain exactly how he fits down our chimney and gets out from behind the glass plate that encloses our fake fireplace. There is magic in Christmas, to be sure, but I’m not the one with the narrative; the magic is in possibility, in a willing suspension of disbelief (which is oh so different from a willing submission to commercialized Christmas), in an openness to miracles big and small. So I’ll just continue to answer the questions and see where we end up. I hope that come December 24 she has enough questions left, enough unsolved mysteries, to hear the bells.

Please let her hear the bells. She’s only three.

The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

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3 Responses to Yes, sweetheart, there is a Santa Claus. Maybe.

  1. shoes November 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Very good answer you gave – “…something magical that a lot of people love to believe.” I think a little magic and wonder make life that much more. I remember truly believing that there was a little man that, when I requested, would turn the dome light on or off in my dad’s 69 Chevy truck. My older sister thought I was a dork, but it makes me smile to this day, when I think of that magical dome light man. :-)

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