Each December parents stop me in the hallway to whisper about Santa Claus. Some parents want me to know that their child no longer ‘believes’; a confession representing growing nostalgia as children grow beyond childhood. Other parents want to ask me when they can expect their child to stop believing. Through the years, I have learned that the buzz about Santa Claus speaks to an important stage in a young child’s development that reaches across all religions, languages and nationalities and it touches upon adults’ sensibilities about youth and innocence.
The discussion about ‘believing’ is important in the development of a young child and it is a discussion that consumes and worries parents and teachers alike. To ‘believe’ or ‘not to believe’ is one of life’s greatest teachable moments and offers lessons in optimism, goodness, hope, anticipation and goodwill; all facets of empathy.
A favorite seasonal title to punctuate the feeling of ‘believing’ is the book, Polar Express, (CLICK for Read-Aloud). A story about a child’s imagination which is vividly remembered by the adult who narrates the tale about a trip to the North Pole, jolting reindeer and the magic sound of a bell that only Santa ‘believers’ can hear. The storyteller offers a glimpse of hope that the bell will chime for those who still ‘believe’. As the story goes, adults lose the ability to hear the bell and the bitter sweet memory of its chime is long remembered and remorsefully missed. It’s my favorite holiday story.
For me, the answer to the ‘believing’ question is this: Believing doesn’t stop when the truth about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, super hero strength, princess tales or the impossibility of miracles are discovered and revealed. ‘Believing’, as a child, is sweet and a hopeful gesture filled with anticipation and unquestionable faith. When Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or any other whimsical fairytale character is long gone from the imagination, ‘believing’ does not vanish, it evolves. Though we may become less hopeful when we no longer believe in imaginary figures from childhood, we become more engaged in expecting acts of goodness and we work to be an active part of the goodness. This act from becoming passive recipient to active creator makes ‘believing’ sweeter and keeps the metaphoric bells chiming throughout a lifetime.
My own discovery of ‘believing’ helps me understand this.
I remember exactly what I was wearing and where I stood when Brian Brown told me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. The news didn’t shock me, nor was I stunned. I also don’t remember reliving Christmases passed to link truth to Brian’s conclusion. I simply took his statement at face value. I stopped believing in Santa Claus at that moment. It was a chilly December morning in the school yard on Broad Street. I was 10 years old, in Mrs. Veccionio’s 5th grade class.
I held on to the new truth quietly and regarded it very personal. I had no doubt in Brian’s declaration that day. Remarkably, I understood enough not to share this at home knowing it would upset my mother. I also worried I would ruin the belief of Christmas for my little brother, who was so eagerly counting his “good” chips for the arrival of Santa Claus in the weeks ahead.
A few days later, my mother and my grandmother brought my brother and me to see Santa Claus. I was, inexplicably, angry with my mother and I pouted all night. My mother charmingly reminded me of the adage; “You better watch out. You better not pout”.
The truth was, I couldn’t explain what I was feeling or why. I couldn’t articulate the nuance or the importance of something as abstract as ‘believing’ or ‘not believing’. All I could do was cry right there on Main Street for all to see. Santa was gone from my life and left me wondering for what and to whom to wish. My grandmother whispered to my mother, “She doesn’t believe anymore”. My mother froze in her tracks.
I am sure my mother was sad that a piece of my childhood blew away in the wind that night; too quickly to recapture. My mother, however, recovered quickly and smiled. At that moment my mother began to include me in Christmas secrets about gift giving and planning surprises for my little brother and my father. She also hinted at the promise of surprise that was under the tree for me. I was, once again, filled with the optimism of anticipation, excitement, and wonderment. I also discovered something new that night –though I was still eager to receive, I was also equally excited about the joy of giving.
I soon was embraced by my mother to join the elite and private discussions that built the element of surprise for the people we loved. I joined in the plans for the perfect gifts, planned secret purchases and found perfect hiding spots. I also stayed up late to wrap the gifts that my brother pleaded Santa Claus for. I remember that I couldn’t contain my excitement as I waited until Christmas day to surprise him. It was 1979; until I had my own children, it was the best Christmas I ever had.
What I learned that Christmas was this: ‘believing’ was not a fleeting childhood fantasy that Brian Brown or anyone else could change. ‘Believing’ in Santa Claus (or any fantasy) is an innocent hope in all things ‘good’ in the world as understood in the mind of a child. What I learned that Christmas from my mother and from the comfort of family tradition is that ‘believing’ after Santa Claus-no matter the holiday or the act of celebration- is also about believing in all things good in the world. The difference was, however, I no longer invested holiday happiness on the wishful act of good will from one person. Rather it was about acts of kindness and goodness that I was now a part of sharing. I was happy to receive the joy of a gift, but happier to share in the joy of giving, in hope, in optimism and in the faith in human exchange-believing in the intimacy of giving and receiving. Ever since, I have put my belief in making others happy, and I appreciate how others work to surprise me and give me joy in return. I found a deeper joy in Christmas without the dependency of Santa Claus.
In my role as mother, I have cherished my own children’s belief in Santa Claus and I have worked hard to preserve the mystery of Santa’s miraculous gift guessing and giving. I loved watching the wonder in my children’s eyes each year. As my children grew, and as one by one they gave up in ‘believing’ in Santa Claus, I celebrated the milestone by passing on my mother’s wisdom. I have embraced them in the secrets of gift giving and tradition building and I have watched each grow from hopeful children to people who work to make a difference in the lives of those they love and respect. My youngest held onto to ‘believing’ as long as he could, and his older brother and sister cherished his wonderment and innocence with me; learning how fragile hope is and how deeply responsible we are to preserve it. A few years ago, he grew suspicious, quieter and carefully watchful the weeks leading up to Christmas. His glance had changed from innocent assumption to curious and clever. I found my heart tug; he was just ten years old; hopeful and wise. But, since, I have cherished his plotting and planning in gift giving and watching how he carries optimism with him in the element of surprise and thoughtfulness.
In my role as educator, I love seeing our students at all stages of belief. I wish for our youngest students in Pre K at CAG to hear the sounds of sweet bells and I wish for their hearts’ desires to be fulfilled so they experience the wonder and excitement of magic and learn to have trust and to build faith in the world. I am grateful to play a small role in their happiness and I so much enjoy hearing their holiday stories through their interpretations of Santa’s visit.
As our students grow and give up on the jolly man in the red suit who has been good to them for many years, I find joy in hearing their tales of holiday plans and their ideas for secrets and surprises in the act of giving to others. I find fulfillment in their happiness to bring toys and books to give to children in need, and I enjoy hearing their stories of helping mom and dad find the right present to donate. The element of ‘believing’ at any age plays out in acts of kindness and in shared stories of family pastimes no matter the age. I am proud that ‘believing’ surrounds us at CAG.
For those who have little believers-cherish the moment of innocence and hope. For those who wonder for how long your children will believe, I am confident we can join together to share in the goodness, optimism and faith in mankind for years to come. Together we can instill in our children the desire to make people happy and to receive acts of kindness from others with open hearts and open minds. In doing so, we will all hear the happy sounds of bells in every act of goodness throughout our lifetimes.
I wish all of our students and their families a happy holiday season filled with happiness, goodness, anticipation, hope and faith. We wish you a happy and healthy new year and look forward to sharing in the magic of 2019 with you!
In the spirit of maroon and gray,
Patricia Lee Marshall
The American School of Guatemala