Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Most Wonderful Lie of the Year?

Out of the blue, three weeks before Christmas, Diva suddenly had a terrible thought. “We don’t have a chimney!” Both Daddy and I knew exactly what she was saying, but we let it play out. “How will Santa get the presents in without a chimney?”
Lit by the dangerous glow of the same hot, colored light bulbs that adorned the Christmas trees of my husband’s childhood, I maintained my nonchalance, barely glancing up. “I guess I always thought he came through the window nearest the tree,” I said. “I mean, that’s where the presents end up.” A pause. “What do you think Daddy?” He concurred, of course. And thus, once again, lying to our daughter came as naturally as breathing.
Funny thing for those who celebrate Christmas: during this season of grace and love and human kindness, it’s like lie-a-palooza, at least where children are involved. Santa as we know him is a hybrid beast—a Coke ad overlaid on top of a German myth sprinkled with the legend of a Greek monk, and the whole thing wrapped in flannel. If you think about it, he’s kind of a creep, really: a leather-booted stranger who sneaks into your house at night with a list of family members he likes to observe in their sleep. If that story was invented today, there’d be a restraining order involved. The part that wins people over to Santa is presents—people like presents.

In theory, it’s not the gifts themselves but the spirit of giving that Santa represents. Our children, we hope, will want to give to others because they have been inspired by the best—the man who practically invented the art. But methinks there’s more to it for parents: Santa allows us to give more than we should, more than our kids actually need, the kind of toys we always wanted and maybe didn’t get but now have an excuse to buy. And we all know that no present from Dad and Dad is ever as good as one delivered by reindeer direct from the North Pole.

So we lie. And lie and lie. Last year, Diva asked about all the “extra” Santas. She had seen the real one at Macy’s in Times Square—she knew he was real because they said so on TV at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—and had stood in a long line for the privilege of sitting on his lap and whispering her request for a robot dog (a toy she had never once mentioned to us). To then see ersatz Ole St. Nicks at malls and banks and the local cable company lobby was confusing, so she turned to the expert, Papa, who loves Christmas like a pig loves muck. “How can they all be Santa?”

I know, the honest and intellectually-sound approach might have been to use this as the first window into easing her out of the Santa myth, and we have at least one friend who would have jumped at such a chance if she’d been his daughter. But I turned her query back around and asked if the Santas all seemed real. No—she was firm—the true item was the one she’d met. So if they weren’t all Santa, why did she think they dressed like him? She came to a peaceful resolution herself: These guys were his helpers because he couldn’t be everywhere at once when all kids needed to get their requests in. I praised her powers of reason. And thus was the lie of Christmas preserved another year.

This week, a friend’s 7 year-old daughter grabbed her mom’s face and pulled her startled mother in close for a piercing look. “Mommy,” she said, teeth bared like fangs. “Are YOU Santa?”

The mom didn’t hesitate. “Of course not! He brought you nine presents last year! I never buy you that much!” The mom later confessed to me that she'd known she needed to stop there, but hadn’t been able to contain herself, and had overshot, goading her daughter, “And you know who is friends with Santa? God. God is!” (I would like to hazard a guess that she has now pretty much guaranteed a two-for-one faith collapse sometime within the next few years.) The mom, red-faced as she recalled her overzealousness, explained to me, “I just want another year, you know?”

I do know. We hang on to this story because it’s a touchstone of too-brief childhood, something special truly just for kids. Yet we know that the outcome is the eventual revelation that not just one’s own parents but, by extension, all grown-ups know how to lie with straight faces. This can occasion any number of reactions from a child, from a shrug to horror to anger, but we roll with it because we think even a bad reaction will be—as are all things with children—short-lived.  In this way, we make a permanent contribution to the process by which the proverbial blinders fall off; our children will never again implicitly trust everything we say, nor will they think that lying to us in return is inherently a problem. I may recall this ruefully when Diva is 16 and throws out a claim like, “When I said I was in my room, I meant a room which felt like mine, which is true in a way, right?”

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine another myth so widespread, so well-embraced, which is designed to be proven untrue as one’s rite of passage into maturity. As far as I know, there is no Amazon jungle tribe which tells its young that there is a Guardian Bird who brings good boys and girls an invisible cloak that makes them impervious to fire, a story the kiddies love right until they burn themselves on an open flame for the first time, only to be told that the blistering welt is proof that they are now so much smarter than those silly little kids with unblemished skin who still believe.

I don’t want to Diva to get burned by Santa—really, I don’t.  At least not this year. Maybe next year or the year after she’ll have thick enough skin for that. But this Christmas, Santa’s bringing her a Barbie dollhouse the size of a Smart Car, a purchase her dads might be somewhat embarrassed to admit they’d made. And if she asks how the jolly old elf got such a big present through the window, I’m sure to have a good lie ready. Tis the season after all.  

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