Last year, my middle-child, the thinking feeling one, wrote a question to me in a book that we pass back and forth to each other: Is Santa Claus real? She had already experienced a near-miss with the tooth fairy who hadn’t yet come by 4.30am, a fact which she had taken, tearful, to her older sister, saying, “I am afraid the Tooth Fairy is Amma. She went out last night and there is nothing under my pillow.” Mercifully, the usually self-absorbed teenager tucked her sister into bed, watched until she fell asleep and then went looking for a box of art-cards to leave under the pillow with a note that read, I am sorry I am late. Your box was heavy and it took me a while to get here. Understanding, in other words, was just around the corner. And yet, how could I be the one to dispel the mystery? Instead I, like hundreds of mothers and fathers before me, took refuge behind a full-color print out of the letter written by Francis P. Church and appearing in The New York Sun in 1897, ‘Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.’ Sometimes, I wrote by way of introduction, a writer looks to another writer to say what they want to say. The book stayed with her a long time and I was afraid I had crushed her faith in my honesty.
This past summer, while cycling around the Schyulkill river in the City of Brotherly Love where I live, she brought up the topic again. “Are you the tooth fairy?” she asked. What could I say but, yes. I launched, then, into an explanation as to why these stories exist. The job of a parent, I told her, is to keep the fairy tale alive until the child is old enough to take it on. I related the story of her older sister standing in for me, of how once she was no longer waiting for the famed fluttered one, she was glad to turn her attention to making sure that the fairies kept arriving for her sisters. It’s your turn, I said, to do the same for your younger sister.
Although she had taken to winking and smiling in a knowing way as the youngest of my daughters talked enthusiastically about Santa, just a few days ago I realized that the knowledge of his ‘non-existence’ sat heavy in her heart. “Why,” she asked me – as we went looking for ‘the furry slippers’ that the youngest was hoping against hope Santa would bring for her – “why is it that if we have to end up knowing Santa is not real, why do parents tell their children that he is real? Wouldn’t it be better if we never thought he was real?” Navigating traffic, I, at first, gave a smart-alecky response: “Would you have liked to be the only curmudgeon walking around at the age of two saying ‘Santa is not real!’?”
Then, I gave her the answer that I felt in my heart. We let children believe in things that don’t exist for adults in the hope that they will continue to believe in the things that adults forget do exist: that the world is essentially good, that people are kinder than we know, that peace is possible. If we only believed in the things we see before us, or know for a fact are real, why would we ever dream of magic, transformation, the immense potential for a different outcome?
Growing up in Sri Lanka within a Buddhist family in a predominantly Buddhist country, Christmas was something I celebrated with my Catholic friends, going to midnight mass, eating Bruedher and sipping cheap wine. On our tropical island, there were no Christmas trees or snow. But the Christmases of pines decorated with ornaments and lights, of snow on the ground and carolers and, most of all, the arrival of Santa Claus, all things I had read about in books and imagined, was always on my mind. Each Christmas Eve I would put myself to bed in a fever of excitement. Santa was going to come. This was the year. Santa didn’t come to Sri Lanka, I thought, because not enough people believed he would. Every year my older brothers, particularly the one closest to me in age, would say goodnight from the door to my room, lifting up the curtain to say “You waiting for Santa? You think he’s going to come this year?” with laughter in their voices. Looking back I wonder if they envied me my complete and heartfelt faith in the arrival of Santa, the ability to forgive the fact that he never showed up, nor ever would.
Now, in my American home I embrace Christmas with the fervor of the zealot. The tree! The presents! The cookies and carrots! Even, when my husband indulged me one year, “footprints” made of flour leading from chimney to tree for my oldest daughter’s first Christmas and mine.
During all those years when Santa failed to show, I never imagined that Christmas would become the anchoring holiday of my adult life. I still have a youngest who marvels at how well Santa knows our family. That chore chart, she says, is perfect for the three of us. I have coaxed my husband the atheist to say, just this morning, “there are elves who wait for those last minute requests and then they shoot out little rockets so Santa, who is already on his way, gets them.” This, in the face of a small voice announcing at breakfast that she really hoped for a guitar pick, something she had not let ‘Santa’ know in time. Most of all, I have three daughters who are willing to let what they know to be true unwind just a little; enough to let the magic in. I fully expect that, as adults, they will look at all the problems in their world with clear eyes, as I do, and still be able to soften that gaze long enough to know that it doesn’t have to remain that way. I credit Santa for that. Long may children small and large, believe that he will come.