My 13-year-old still believes in Santa Claus

Should I tell her the truth -- to save her from the derision of her friends, if nothing else?

Published December 22, 2006 12:07PM (EST)

Dear reader,

On Monday this column passed a significant milestone when the 1,000th column went live. Our own Scott Rosenberg had noted this impending event two weeks past, but in the rush of the holidays it eluded awareness until today.

I must say the slight delay yielded an unexpected delight -- Monday's column being "My Boyfriend Freaked Out Because I Had a Threesome" and today's being "My 13-Year-Old Still Believes in Santa Claus" -- together describing the wobbly arc from innocence to experience, no? A fitting delineation of range for a column that seeks to proudly treat the gamut of human drama!

In recognition of her perspicacity in so timing her request for advice, the writer of the 1,000th letter will receive a free Since You Asked book upon its publication -- which could still be several months away but toward which work proceeds steadily. Once the text containing all your suggested columns is compiled -- you suggested quite a few! -- then we will begin paring it down to something manageable, and then "pour" the text! You know we're publishing this ourselves, right? You will, I trust, bear with us. Though we are reasonably competent people, and though the work is a joy, it is a time-consuming joy pursued in the odd salvaged hour.

And now, today's song of particular seasonal relevance!

Hi Cary,

I will be the first to admit that this may seem like a lame problem in the full scheme of things, but I would love for you to weigh in on this. My nearly 13-year-old stepdaughter believes in Santa Claus. Completely.

To give some background, her father was widowed when she was an infant, so we are her only living parents. I also have two small children from my first marriage who are still very much in the Santa target demographic. So you might assume she's going along with the game for the younger kids, but it's truly not the case.

Last Christmas, our first as a family, I was stunned when she asked me how Santa would know to find her at her new address. And just yesterday she admitted to wondering how Santa could truly go down everyone's chimney at midnight. ("That would be impossible, even for Santa.")

Her comments and questions have all come at times when the other children are not around. She's not pretending.

This is an incredibly bright child -- honor roll, advanced classes, very much a freethinker, with an amazing social consciousness. She's not stunted in her emotional development. Tooth fairy, Easter Bunny -- she gave those up years ago. But Santa's legitimacy isn't even on her radar.

So here's the question my husband and I are pondering: Do we spill the beans?

I have very vivid memories from fourth grade when an insensitive teacher made a comment about Santa truly being our parents. My classmates and I were stunned when the one little girl in the class who was apparently still in the dark put her head on her desk and burst into tears. The rest of us had already known for some time. That was the early 1980s. And kids today are supposedly so much more advanced.

My husband is concerned she is going to embarrass herself around her peers. And he has a point -- especially at this age where she's so overwhelmingly self-conscious about fitting in and being part of a group.

But at the same time, a part of me thinks it's kind of charming. I mean, she's had to grow up faster than her peers in some ways, having no mother around for so much of her life. Why shouldn't she be able to keep some aspects of childhood around a little longer?

Aside from preventing social embarrassment, the only other advantage I see to telling her the truth is that it would make it a little easier for her to understand why she won't receive some of the excessive gifts her peers will find under the tree on Christmas morning (iPods, computers, video game systems). I do remember from my own experience that it was quite a relief to discover that my more modest Christmas gifts weren't an indication that Santa didn't like me as much as the other kids.

I wish we could afford to do more for all three of our wonderful kids, but our oldest, because teenagers' "toys" are considerably more pricey, is the only one who is really noticing the discrepancy. Maybe it's guilt that's truly fueling this question?

I know in the full scheme of things this seems rather small and insignificant, but I would be very interested to get your opinion on this.

Wondering Mom

Dear Wondering Mom,

Insofar as possible we tell our kids the truth. But there is of course much leeway in what truths are told and how. There are for every truth a thousand ways of telling. Tell your stepdaughter the truth. But which truth, and how?

I think you tell her what can best be called the poetic truth. It's possible that your stepdaughter possesses a very poetic soul, and that what she gets from her belief is the pleasure of beauty and magic. So it may not be terribly important to her whether it is literally true or not -- what is important is that you be sensitive to what it means to her. The story of Santa is art; it is so captivating and beautiful that she may simply want to enjoy the music of it, the captivating happiness of it. That enjoyment could be shattered if too rudely explicated, but it need not be shattered at all, even as she awakens to the impossibility of Santa's most vaunted feats.

"Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world," wrote Francis P. Church in his famous 1897 New York Sun editorial, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus."

He said pretty much what I would have said, only better.

For doubting, secular people, Christmas can still be an innocent time, a time of taking pleasure in innocent beauty. When I was a child it was the only time of the year when society seemed to recognize that there is beauty and joy in the world and it can be shared and there is a time to sit together by the fire and play music and sing songs and give each other gifts. What a wonderful time.

What you want to communicate to your stepdaughter is this: the willingness to both know and believe.

I would ask her what she believes. I would respect her beliefs.

And then I think I would warn her. I would warn her -- as if she did not already know -- that other children can be extremely cruel, and that while it is perfectly acceptable to believe things others do not believe, it is sometimes wise to keep one's most cherished beliefs to oneself. People can trample one's beliefs. They can destroy them with a careless word or gesture. So it is sometimes best to hold one's beliefs close, to protect them from the corrosive derision of insensitive others who would trample on our dreams.

I would warn her, too, about the way people keep score with presents, and remind her that there are, in this realm too, a thousand different ways of keeping score. If she is bright, she can keep score with grades and achievement, and if she is inward-looking, she can keep score on how true she is to herself.

So encourage her to have dreams, to cultivate dreams, and to protect her dreams and her beliefs.

There are many truths. There are musical truths and sculptural truths and performance truths; there are baseball scores and mathematical theorems; there are poetic truths and observable truths and observable truths that are not true -- for instance, the observable truth that the sun revolves around the Earth is an illusion. It depends on where you're standing.

And there are many things that we believe which are as yet unprovable. We believe that pi, for instance, does not repeat its digits. Having calculated it out to 200 billion digits in which as yet no pattern has been found can we yet be certain that no pattern ever will be found? What about at 200 billion billion digits? That's a lot of digits. Even 100,000 digits is a lot of digits.

So I would stand with Francis Church. Mysteries and miracles abound in the visible and invisible world. Santa is among them.

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