Now that Christmas is in sight, I am once again readying myself for The Conversation.
It won’t be the first time I’ve had to do it, but it never gets any easier.
Each year they ask me about it, but no-one actually wants to hear the answer. As soon as the first sentence leaves my mouth, they swell with outrage, they call me a Grinch, they tell me I’m No Fun At All.
Mind you, these aren’t my kids we’re talking about – these are my friends and acquaintances. Typically they’re people with younger children, and they’re weighing up the best time and way to break the news about Santa in their household.
They ask: “When did you tell your kids?”, “What did you say?”, “How did they react?”
But I’m no help whatsoever, because I’ve never been in that situation.
You see, right from the beginning I told my kids Santa is pretend.
When I explain this to people, it pretty much kills conversation. They almost always react with disapproval – telling me that I’ve robbed my kids of something special: the chance to believe and belong.
I can see that they picture an austere Christmas in our household: plain lentils for lunch, followed by an action-packed afternoon of chores. And they can imagine all the other things that must be outlawed in the Spartan cave of our existence: junk food, television, toys, laughter.
The judgement comes down so swiftly and loudly that I never get the chance to explain – far from missing out, my kids always had loads of fun not believing in Santa.
Being imaginary doesn’t make you a bad person
Their dad and I decided early on that we wouldn’t be hoodwinking them about the Jolly Fat Man. Our rationale was pretty simple: if we spent years building up a false belief in Santa, how could we expect them to trust we had their backs and were telling the truth about any of the Really Big Stuff?
It wasn’t as if we enacted a Total Santa Ban in our home. In fact, I’d argue that knowing Santa was make-believe gave the kids scope to fully enjoy him.
They wrote him charming notes on Christmas Eve. They helped cook cakes and bake biscuits to leave out for him, all the while making knowing references to the fact that he probably had similar tastes to their sweet-toothed dad.
They guffawed when the carrot they left for Rudolph was still there in the morning, because coincidentally, their father wasn’t big on raw veggies.
Gravy on top
As planned, we avoided the angst and distress of ever having to break the news about Santa, but there were also serendipitous side effects.
For starters, we scored all the kudos for the kids’ Christmas presents.
Okay, I’m being flippant on that point – it had nothing to do with the glory of being the celebrated benefactors of a bunch of cool stuff. In truth, when the kids were little we didn’t have a lot of stuff to give – cool or otherwise.
But knowing that we were the ones doing the gift-giving meant that they recognised and appreciated the love and thought that went into their Christmas presents from early on. They grasped that these were heartfelt gifts from people who cared deeply about them, rather than windfalls from a stranger who magically knew what they wanted and might naturally be expected to fulfil their exact specifications.
So however meagre the gifts might be, the kids felt a sense of specialness about them.
And they embraced the idea that real magic is a do-it-yourself project.
Bring your own fairydust
Two years ago the last instalment of Harry Potter was released in Australian cinemas on my birthday. The kids – who were 13 and 11 at the time – came up with an inspired plan.
A week before the release date, I found a toy owl on my bed, with a letter under its wing. Written in green ink and sealed with red wax, it was a handmade birthday invitation to see The Deathly Hallows – Part 2 with them. On the eve of the date, they stayed up late and made Potter-themed treats from recipes they’d found on the internet – butter beer, white chocolate wands, biscuits shaped like broomsticks and witch’s hats.
I would never have dreamt up something so perfect to put on a wishlist, even if Santa did do birthday requests. It was such an imaginative and thoughtful gift.
So, yes. My kids did miss out on the wonder of believing in Santa and his flying-reindeer variety of magic.
But they also gained a powerful and enduring sense that magic can be something you create for yourself – and share with the people you love.