Open-Source Parenting: Magic

“…My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Santa Claus and I were not on speaking terms when I was a kid. Christmas was already a touchy subject in our fundamentalist tradition, what with the pagan origins of Christmas trees and the commercialism of all those shiny wrapped gifts. Don’t get me wrong; my siblings and I got to open presents on Christmas morning just like other children, but we sure as shootin’ knew they didn’t come from a fat shapeshifter in red fur whose name just happened to be an anagram for “Satan.” For a while when I was very young, I had the impression that I wasn’t supposed to know about him at all, so I adopted a kind of haughty obliviousness toward the old gent. After all, it wasn’t as if he were real.

The Tooth Fairy got the same treatment from me, as did that sacrilegious, egg-stealing lout The Easter Bunny. I looked down on my friends for believing in such nonsense, and I looked down even more on their parents for encouraging it. When I grew up and had kids of my own, I would never lie to them like that.

In the monkey grass with Hudson Taylor
Don’t mess with eight-year-old Bethany’s mental integrity or she will cat you.

A few things happened between my childhood resolution and the arrival of my own children though. One was the day in college when a few of my friends and professors teamed up to give me an Easter basket full of candy. It was the first Easter basket of my life (that I’d been allowed to keep, at any rate), and my classmates that day were treated to the sound of choking giddy laugh-tears. The candy itself wasn’t such a big deal, but the playfulness behind it, the bright colors and whimsy superimposed on a holiday that had often crushed me beneath its gravity, loosened up some tightly clenched fistful of my soul.

I was also at college when I learned about Coleridge’s “poetic faith,” about how we’ll willingly shed our sense of reality so we can slip into the pages of a well-written story. I hadn’t thought of that before even though falling headfirst into books was one of my favorite pastimes. The concept made perfect sense to me however. While I was nerding out over my Lord of the Rings trilogy, it wasn’t as if I actually thought Middle Earth existed… but I did believe in it. When Frodo set off for Mount Doom, I was there, my imagination busy alchemizing fable into fact. As scornful as I had always been of magic, I now realized that I was an old hand at it.

I still contend that books are best read in pillow forts.

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I didn’t set out to use the willing suspension of disbelief as a parenting strategy. It just kind of happened as we figured out our family rhythm over the years.

Take our old friend Satan Santa. Dan and I never told our girls that a jolly bearded reindeer driver would be bringing their gifts, but we didn’t exclude him from the holidays either. We read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and watched “Elf” and sang about the woes of Rudolph. When Natalie started asking if Santa Claus was real, we told her about the original St. Nicholas and asked her what she thought of it all. Our extremely literal little girl wasn’t quite buying the existence of a magical Santa. She did agree, however, that it was a lot of fun to pretend, and so we did. We do.

We pretend about the Easter Bunny as well. Most years, we go for a little family walk during which plastic eggs mysteriously appear in tree branches and clumps of grass around us. The girls try every time to catch Dan and I at it because they know we’re the ones planting the goods, but there’s magic in it all the same. “Wow, thank you Easter Bunny!” they’ll giggle in our direction with conspiratorial eye-rolls.

And then there’s the Tooth Fairy:

Tooth Fairy
I admit nothing.

I don’t share any of this to criticize how other parents handle folklore with their kids. Nor am I trying to minimize the sacred side of holidays like Christmas and Easter. I just wanted to share the way we’ve found to keep both reality and magic as dance partners in our family life—by handing the reins over to our imaginations from time to time, giggling our way straight into story, and together experiencing worlds that only exist through the willing suspension of disbelief.

Your turn! How do you navigate the realm of legendary figures with your family? What did you think about it all when you were a kid yourself? Any good stories to tell? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

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  1. Cute the sigh of relief. We’ve handled Santa and the Easter bunny the same as you and we are embarking on our first Tooth fairy event any day now. Anna told me that she planned to write the tooth fairy a note to see if she exists and all of a sudden so many funny scenarios popped into my head of the things “Ms Fairy” might say in reply.a Any good suggestions?

    • Tooth Fairy duty is so fun. I always wrote the girls notes in reply as well (signing them Tooth Fairy) and just let them figure out over time that it was me. It WAS my handwriting, after all. 😀 I still maintain that they can’t know for sure it’s me because the Tooth Fairy only does her job when they’re asleep… to which they roll their eyes with great delight and groan “Moooooommmmm….”

      • Ah, yes. That was along the lines of what I hoped to do! I’m glad I’m not the only one who enjoys the fun without all the seriousness.

  2. Kids figure it out no matter what, and it IS fun to pretend, so we always went right along with the myth and magic. Here in Sweden, it’s very common to have a family member or friend dress up as Santa and show up at the door, and watching the kids’ faces is part of the fun. They were totally snowed for years and then they started getting suspicious and it was even more fun to try and keep them guessing. Lying, schmying, it’s a magical part of childhood to believe in those good things, and a part of growing up to figure it all out and feel superior that you have, and I honestly can’t see the harm in it. 🙂

    • Does Santa come on Christmas morning? That sounds like so much fun! I’ve always also been enchanted by the St. Lucia tradition. It seems like there just might be an extra helping of Christmastime magic in the air in Sweden. 🙂

      • Lucia has always been lovely, but the kids are too old for it now. It used to be they got dressed up for the Lucia procession at daycare or school and we went in extra early to watch them sing Lucia and Christmas songs. Those days, sadly, are over …until they have kids! Santa has to work extra hard at our house, because we celebrate both the Swedish AND the American traditions. So Santa stops by on his way from the North Pole, around 2:00 p.m. on Christmas EVE which is when Swedes celebrate Christmas (and which is well before the bizarro time-honored watching of the Disney Christmas special that Swedes will not miss), and the kids get to open their SWEDISH presents

        and THEN he flies around the world delivering presents, and drops off the American stuff under the tree for Christmas Day morning. Whew!

  3. We are whole hog here as well…Sarah is in the know, but Katie and Nicholas are still snowed, I THINK? We’ll see, they are at that age when it is tough to believe, but you still WANT to…

  4. I grew up in a fundamental environment that sounds very similar to yours. I didn’t understand or even realize that other kids actually thought Santa was real! It seemed ludacris to me. Until the day when I was around 5 years old playing with my cousins who were probably around 4 themselves. I brought their childhoods to a screeching halt when I nonchalantly and very matter of factly stated of course Santa isn’t a real thing, what are you stupid? This became commonly known as the day that a 5 year old single handedly tore apart the Laipple family. My aunts were enraged, there were lots of phone calls, scoldings, and severed relationships that years later were still tense. It’s a great story. So great in fact, I was asked to recount it at a family gathering a couple of years ago which I happily did and was amused at the looks of horror on my cousins’ faces until I realized that the next generation of grandchildren were all within hearing range! You can credit me with a second great family schism 😉

    • Oh Julie! Your story had me laughing and physically cringing at the same time. 😀 Man oh man… I feel like you’re due a drink or a hug (or both) for even having to remember that!

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