Thursday, 8 December 2011

To believe or not to believe...

Christmas is now 17 sleeps away.  Come December, those of us with children collectively relax our parenting skills and leave some of the discipline to that ageless, bearded benefactor, Santa Claus.  Each of us will, at some stage between the opening of the first window of the advent calendar and Christmas Day, perpetuate the myth that Santa will be listening in on and watching intently the misdemeanours of our children.

I happen to believe wholeheartedly that childhood is all too fleeting and diminishes a little (like the economy), year upon year, as this world becomes a darker and more foreboding place.  I still believe this and accordingly strive to ensure that my son’s childhood is enriched with magical memories to cherish forever.

However, I am also a realist and when I’m feeling hard on myself, I see Christmas for what it is - one big lie we tell our children.  A lie one day we will have to confess to upholding for several years and consequently embark on a damage limitation exercise of monumental proportions.  Either that, or leave it to the cool kids at school to enlighten our children and simultaneously administer one of life’s bitter pills. 

Until now I have always managed to quash these negative thoughts and have been swept away on a tidal wave of festive cheer, unyielding in my affirmation of Santa.  But, only yesterday, I was again given cause to question this conviction.

When I had my son, I vowed never to lie to him.  Parents can be deceitful and whilst this is oft borne out of a desire to do right by one’s children, it can be counter productive and facilitate a climate of suspicion.  Not volunteering information is tantamount to lying in my opinion, particularly when used as an avoidance tactic, such as not telling your child that you have signed him up for swimming lessons (knowing the negative reaction it would cause).  I have always ensured the lines of communication are open in my relationship with my son and have told the truth a little in advance of the event itself, no matter how unpalatable, to give me time to mentally prepare him and to hopefully turn the situation around.  I have taken this approach with everything from inoculations to starting nursery and school.  Honesty is the best policy in my opinion.  Admittedly this approach has had mixed results, such as my insistence that he attended Beavers for at least three weeks before I considered he was justified in asserting his intense hatred of the experience!

However, on the whole, this has served me well and I believe that my son trusts me implicitly.  I think that is why, when my son asked me the other day “Is Father Christmas real?  Tell the truth now!”  I hesitated.  I considered the tone of his question.  It was teasing, but there was a hint of fragility, a sense that if I had told the truth, he would have been crushed.  This persuaded me to continue the lie, but has left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. 

An overriding cynicism pervades my own childhood memories of Santa Claus.  I recall casually identifying our school Headmaster as a bogus Santa at the school Christmas Fete, in spite of his authentically rotund physique and naturally ruddy cheeks.  It also didn’t go unnoticed by me that local TV stations would advertise appearances by Santa at shopping centres across the county on the same day.  I would ask:  “How can he be in all those places at the same time?”  But ultimately I needed evidence and clearly remember leaving an autograph book on my bedside table to satisfy myself that it was Santa I heard every year, dragging a sack across the landing and whispering loudly (presumably to himself!) some time after midnight.  I don’t even recall being particularly upset or surprised when I learned the truth. 

I think that is why I feel so guilty now.  I seem to have passed on my tendency to apply logic to every situation to my son.  He is a stickler for detail and will not for example simply accept that Santa listens in on conversations.  He wants to know how this is possible, although my husband’s response that he has spies dotted around the place, albeit a little sinister, does seem to have satisfied him on this for now.  He also wants to know exactly where Santa lives, what his house is like and how he can deliver presents to all children when sleep is a prerequisite.  (He’s got me here.  My son is notoriously nocturnal and has in fact inspired my first book – Diary of a Sleep Deprived Mum.  If all children were like my son, Santa would have to have a rocket-propelled sleigh to successfully complete his rounds by Christmas morning!)

As befits a child finding his or her place in the world, questions on the trickiest of subjects are inevitable.  It just gets harder to field them I find, especially given my honesty policy.  A particularly challenging example is the big life question itself, the existence of God.  My son has also recently asked this question (again, clearly triggered by Christmas and the nativity story).  My beliefs, I feel, are irrelevant.  No matter how fantastical the idea of a godly presence watching over us may be to a practically minded six year old, I would like him to take that leap of faith at his tender age.  A friend advised that in their household, such questions are handled by firstly explaining what some people believe before asking their children what they think.  This is a wonderful approach, which encourages independent thought. 

Unfortunately, on this subject, my son is reluctant to offer his opinion unless and until he is furnished with all the facts.  These include what God looks like, where he actually lives and the precise location of Heaven (which my son has currently decided is in outer space). 

Sadly my responses on this subject have so far been a little wishy-washy, which has had the advantage of deterring him from asking further questions.  For now.  Perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies and time out to gather my thoughts.  I should appreciate that my son thinks I’m a dullard who changes the subject when questions become too difficult for my withering, decrepit brain. 

With recent interrogations still at the forefront of my mind, last night we received a visit from a superior bogus Santa courtesy of the local Rotary Club.  He had an authentic costume (not for the Rotary Club is the slapdash approach to beard adhesive) and a sleigh (thankfully, the vehicle towing him, engine still running, was just out of sight behind the garden wall).  As we stepped out into the frosty night air, I glanced up at the stars and was suddenly reminded of a momentary lapse in my childhood Santa cynicism.  I remembered looking out of my bedroom window, convinced that I had heard sleigh bells and actually believing I could see Rudolph’s nose streaking across the night sky.  More than that, I remembered the sheer wonder and frisson of excitement I experienced at that moment.  Suddenly our white lie weighed a little less on my conscience.  Surely we all deserve to experience a little magic at least once in our lives?  Even if it turns out to be misplaced, I think that the belief itself, however temporary, feels real enough to make a lasting impression.