“Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”
“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.” …
“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so … Because the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. … Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.”
This is a scene from Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, in which the just-born heroine’s Grandma Mary explains to an exhausted, disillusioned new mother why flights of fancy are still worth the effort. It is still, for my money, the best apologia out there for letting the Santa story survive — or letting it take root at all.
And no, I haven’t forgotten Frances Pharcellus Church’s* immortal letter to Virginia, another indelible defense of spirit over materialism. But Grandma Mary’s words carry an irresistible blend of practicality and joy that has resonated for me ever since I read them as a teenager.
Most of the parents I know don’t fight the Santa story; it would be like trying to stopper Niagara Falls. You can be the biggest rationalist out there, but then the kid hits preschool, the weather turns cold and there is no stopping the Santa stampede. Perhaps that’s wrong; I suppose you could dig in your heels and let your three-year-old be the one to tell all the other three-year-olds in the nursery school that it’s all a fake. I have not met anyone with that sort of internal fortitude.
But still, every child reaches the day when Santa leaves for good. There is always a classmate or an older sibling to do the deed. There is always that moment of shocked disbelief, followed by dawning comprehension. In particularly stubborn cases, the Rationalist Cop has to produce physical evidence — trotting the defiant Santa believer over to peek in the secret gift cupboard two days before Christmas Eve. Very few cases of defiant belief survive that.
In really stubborn cases of days gone by, the believer could always write to the New York Sun.
But with the Sun and Mr. Church long departed, The Parent must take the question: “Is it true? Is there really no Santa Claus?”
I don’t remember exactly what I said. I remember what I felt, which was resignation, and numerous connected thoughts:
A. It had to happen.
B. Our household had had a longer than average Santa run as it was.
C. Thank Rudolph I wouldn’t have to hide packages all over the place anymore.
What I also felt, surprisingly, was gratitude. For the story, for the fun of it, for the blind belief and the inevitable growing up. And above all, for the foundation of fancy this early journey into mythmaking has given my two tale-spinning daughters as they write their own scripts and stories.
I think Grandma Mary had it right. The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination.
*In case you have ever wondered, as I have, where the “Pharcellus” came from, apparently it was a gift from dear old Dad. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Frank Church was born in 1839 in Rochester, N.Y. to Baptist minister Pharcellus Church and his wife, Chara Emily (Conant) Church.