“…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.
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.
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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:
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!