ast night during dinner our family snuggled down in the big comfy couches of our living room and watched “The Polar Express”. Like so many holiday stories, the major theme as revealed at the end of the story is “belief for belief’s sake”. In the epilogue we learn that as the boy’s friends grow up, one by one they lose the ability to hear the sleigh bell as they each eventually stop believing in Santa. But the little boy, he never stops believing. As the credits roll (and “The Polar Express” is no exception in the pantheon of Christmas movies) we are left with the notion that holding on to belief for belief’s sake is a virtue, and that those who have lost it are in some way diminished.
Teeth brushed, pajamas on, lights out, my 7 year old daughter crawled into her bed, fantastical images of the movie still swirling around in her head, and I laid down next to her for a little snuggle-time. A few minutes pass with the sweet, soft breathing of a child on her way to sleep. After a time she slowly rolled over and whispered quietly to me, “Daddy, do you believe in Santa?”
Now it should be said that this girl is a born skeptic. She is nobody’s fool, and she will be the last person bamboozled when the snake-oil salesman comes to town. When we watch “The Wizard of Oz” she sees the little guy behind the curtain more than the billowing, blustering fireball on the throne. This past spring, in a similar bedtime situation, she rolled over and confessed apologetically to my wife “Mommy, I’m sorry but I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny isn’t scientific and I just can’t believe in something that isn’t scientific.” But that said, I think everyone can appreciate how, compared to believing in the Easter Bunny, Santa is in a completely different league.
This being the holiday season, there are faith-centered images and messages everywhere. Children come to school talking about angels and miracles and the little baby Jesus. Relatives openly express their beliefs, different though they may be from your own, at family meals and on holiday cards in your mailbox. Kids are inundated by the notion of “belief” this time of year, and my kids are only just now old enough to listen to the things people say, think about those things to themselves, and then form their own opinions. What follows can be pretty profound.
Just this Friday we had Christmas music playing in the house when out of nowhere, my daughter comes up to me and says, “Daddy, why do they say ‘god our heavenly father’? That doesn’t make any sense. God isn’t my father. You’re my father.” Then later in the weekend I overheard a very amusing discussion between my kids and their older cousins about whether or not Jesus actually had super powers. If nothing else these are moments to teach our children that everyone believes something different, and someone else’s beliefs are just as important to them as yours are to you. You have to respect that fact when you’re talking with other people.
That notion is applicable to Santa as much as it is to anything else.
I love that my daughter is a thinker. I’m proud of that fact and I want to celebrate it – to encourage it. But if belief for belief’s sake is the providence of children, then logic and reason are the hallmark of adulthood, and there is no clearer indication that my daughter is growing up more than the fact that she is thinking for herself.
So I found myself at that very uncomfortable crossroad. I’m proud of my daughter’s budding intellectualism and I want to encourage her to let it grow, but I also want her to stay my little girl for as long as humanly possible. I want her to think for herself, but I don’t want her to lose the magical naiveté of childhood belief any sooner than she has to. Meanwhile lying there next to me, my daughter’s heart really wanted to believe in Santa, even if her mind was telling her something else entirely.
My head and my heart are pulling me in two different directions, just as hers are.
So she looked to me, asking for permission… permission to let either her heart or her mind win out over the other. In so doing she was asking me to choose between encouraging her intellectual integrity and selling her snake oil. In that moment I had to decide.
Do I help her grow up, or hold desperately on to her fleeting childhood for one last moment?
“Daddy, do you believe in Santa?”
I laid there quietly for a moment not answering, afraid that my silence was enough of an answer for her.
On her bedroom floor against the wall was a little musical instrument her baby brother had toddled in and left earlier in the day – a Velcro wrist-strap with sleigh bells on it. Without answering I rose up from our snuggles, quietly made my way across her room, picked up the sleigh bells and brought them back to her bedside. Kneeling down I kissed her on the forehead and said, “Can you still hear the bells?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“So can I.”
That was enough for her.