The layers of belief

Our little family is slowly developing a list of holiday traditions. I wrote about Trinity Farm last year, the place where we have now gone three years in a row to cut our Christmas tree. People go there to get their trees, but they also go there to ride the kiddie train, sit on Santa’s lap, play on the old firetruck, sit around drinking free cocoa and apple cider around an open firepit, and just generally be outside in the subalpine air.

Emilia and I survey a field of future Christmas trees.

Saturday was a gorgeous day, sunny and cold. We found our tree rather quickly (and encircled it with a prayer of thanks delivered eloquently this year by Mara, then cut it down and affixed it to the top of the car), which allowed us more time to clamber around the fire engine and linger by the fire.

Goofing on the fire engine is an annual tradition.

Because the bonfire is so central to the Trinity Tree Farm experience, Angela thought to bring a bag of marshmallows with us, and I had snipped two long suckers from the cherry tree in our yard and thrown them in the back of the car before we headed up. I sharpened these into marshmallow roasting implements and we made ourselves sick on fire-roasted clouds of sugar. Other, less fortunate kids were eyeing the marshmallows and whispering to their parents about it, until we started telling people to help themselves. We passed the sticks on to eager young roasters, creating a miniature Sucrose Event there by the fire that will inform the pastiche of images and scenes in the memories of at least a dozen little kids.

Since there were cookies and hot-dogs and kettle corn for sale, I’m not sure that our little marshmallow commune quite fit into the farm’s economic model, but we were glad to have been part of so much spontaneous joy.

Onlookers lick lips in envy.

Mara still isn’t keen to sit on the old elf’s lap. We have never told her there is no such thing as Santa Claus, in fact we maintain the elaborate charade (some gifts are from Santa, for example, and we leave him a plate of cookies), but some part of her knows he is a fiction, and so it disturbs her to see him sitting there. Mara has not indicated to us that she is ready to give up this wonderful childhood myth — in fact just the opposite — but she definitely won’t sit on some stranger’s lap when she knows good and well that it’s not Saint Nick.

Millie getting her first whiff of grand fir.

Angela and I are learning about a strange kind of “belief” that Mara is displaying these days and that was even present to some degree last year. We dug the Advent calendar out of the garage on December 1st, lighting the fuse on a countdown to Christmas that will significantly reduce the quality and quantity of sleep for all members of our household who are five and a half years old. We’d splurged on a really nice Advent calendar last year. It’s not so much a calendar as a little wooden dollhouse with 24 cubbies — each hidden by a hinged door — large enough to hold a piece of candy or a small toy. Mara goes insane when this thing is sitting on the mantel, as though she were a wolf and it were a full moon. Little trinkets or M&Ms or other treats show up magically each on their appointed day, put there “by Santa’s elves”.

We were late getting this started this year, so the first morning had already gone by before we brought it upstairs and set it above the fireplace. This meant that the first day’s cubby should already be opened, a calculus not lost on the girl, who wondered whether there might nevertheless be something delightful behind that first door when we took it out of its box.

Magic for as long she needs to believe.

[Aside: Funny she should ask, because Angela had had the presence of mind to slip a chocolate coin into it before bringing it up.] We told Mara that it wasn’t likely there would be anything there since we were late about it this year, and we delivered thespian astonishment when she looked anyway and found the coin.

A while later she asked Angela, “Mommy, did you put that coin in there?” Angela usually says something like, “What do YOU think, Sweetie?” in answer to such questions, but she was caught off-guard and she answered “no”. This seemed to satisfy Mara, but I felt bad that we had lied outright in direct response to a yes or no question. Creating the myth in the first place, telling her that elves were hiding goodies in the calendar, was not the same as lying. But looking her in the eye when she was asking for the truth in unequivocal terms and telling her Untruth…well, I didn’t like it. Angela agreed immediately when I brought it up, and we agreed we would burst the bubble of her childhood innocence the next day, since she seemed ready.

Still a believer.

But the next day I had to rush off to work and “the talk” didn’t happen. Because I find Angela’s telling of what happened later so beautiful, I will use the words she sent me in an email that day:

Hey Dude,
I had a chat with Mara after you left, and I asked her who she “wished” was putting things in the advent calendar. She said Santa, his elves, or his Hon.* I said, “what about me or daddy?”. She got a kind of funny look on her face, and said “NO. Then we wouldn’t all be surprised.” That was the end of the conversation. Mara is a smart kid, and at some level, she knows that we are the ones that are creating the magic, but we can still give her permission to believe in Santa, elves, fairies, etc. She clearly wants to still believe. Because she’s such a smart kid, she’ll really need that permission from us to still live in the land of make believe. She’ll really need us to play along with her. I really botched it last night…I was so unprepared for her questions. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I think it would be sadder, at this point, to take away that ever so thin veil between fantasy and reality…I certainly gave Mara the opportunity to come up with the “true” answer this morning, and her choice was clear.” 

I can see the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny wiping their brows and saying “Phew! That was a close call.”

*”Hon” is Mara’s word for a spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend, or civil partner.


13 Responses to “The layers of belief”

  1. 1 Louis December 7, 2010 at 01:22

    Lovely story. I am envious of your Advent calendar. Ours was usually just a piece of flat cardboard featuring the Nativity or a pastoral Christmas scene, covered in glitter. One thing I really wanted to take back with me was the scent of fir and pine..

    • 2 jstwndrng December 7, 2010 at 11:28

      Louis, we had the same ones when I was growing up, and I loved them, still feel tingly (and tinselly) when I see them. They didn’t take over our entire psyche either, because it was just a picture of a drum inside the flap, or a bugle. I’m not really sure it’s healthy that Mara is frothing at the mouth for the next toy/treat for 24 straight days.

      Sorry you can’t smell conifers this Christmas. I suppose the nearest would be in Patagonia or across the mountains in Chile? Hey, biz idea: marketing holiday pinot-potpourri bags to northern expats living in Brazil. Dibs!

  2. 3 kiwidutch December 7, 2010 at 09:47

    Wow, what a brilliant idea for an advent calendar, and even better story behind it. Last week Kiwidutch Daughter was feeling vengeful after a battle of wills (unreasonable demands, politely but firmly refused) and threatened out loud to expose the “truth” about the Dutch Sint Nicolas to Little Mr. as spiteful revenge.
    Stern words of caution stopped her literally in the nick of time and a quiet conversation alone later spelled out that if you “believe” then you might get a gift, no matter how old you are, but that shattering the illusion for anyone who’s truly heart and soul into the excitement of the tradition would be a crime that she might regret her whole life.
    Little Mr. will “let go” in his own good time, when he is ready and then he too will be in the “secret club” of older kids who help make things extra special for the little ones.
    Fortunately Kiwi Daughter “got it” and has volunteered to be one of the Piet’s (Sints costumed helpers) next year (only two kids in school will be chosen).
    We explained that there is a very subtle difference between telling lies and participating in a tradition that is very special in childhood, and that “faith” in who is actually doing what, gets revealed at the right moment only when each child is ready for the magic to wear off.
    That said, we also said that *some* of the magic lasts a lifetime and that it’s made that way so that we can cherish these little treats, rituals and festivities and infuse them with lots of songs, laughter, excitement as a family and that it creates special moments that we will remember for always.
    She got “that” even more and has delighted in recent days in heightening the fun for Little Mr. and other younger members of the extended family. She showed me that not only do kids “let go” when they are ready, but they will also step up to the next level within the traditions when they are ready too, and that that will hold it’s own magic, just as beautiful.

    • 4 jstwndrng December 7, 2010 at 11:32

      A beautiful sidebar, KD. Thanks for it. It sounds like you have really served your daughter well in this episode. It would have been tragic to have to lock her in the henhouse for the entire holiday season.

      “the nick of time”…love it.

      • 5 kiwidutch December 7, 2010 at 22:25

        Ha Ha, she’s also not in the hen-house because she was given choices: i.e. it was spelled out exactly how severe the punishment would be and Himself and I had separate talks with her so she knew just how disappointed in her we would be.
        How seriously Himself and I felt about her carrying out this treat was VERY clearly conveyed … her making the “right” choice followed shortly afterwards. LOL.
        Interestingly she did come back a day later, well after it was done and dusted, gave me a quick hug and said quietly that she was really really sorry. Himself got the same treatment separately, so seems her conscience kicked in and she felt guilty. Volunteering to be a helper next year came after that.
        I think that making it clear when you are proud of your kids decisions and when you are disappointed in them hopefully gives them the right choice of the two to aspire to.
        In the “Nick” of time was Himself saying her name whilst she was in mid-sentence of the reveal in a tone that I have never heard him use before… she was luckily stunned into silence.
        She had actually given off blatant clues to Little Mr in the run-up to this, fortunately his “faith” appears to have closed his not-ready-ears to them and he didn’t react at all… his blissful excitement remains.

  3. 6 marni December 7, 2010 at 11:08

    I still remember the day I “realized” Santa was in fact the parentals. I can’t speak for all children but for me- the horror was devastating! I hope Mara continues to believe for a long time to come.
    By the way, the only lie my parents ever told me in an attempt to perpetuate my fantasy world that I never forgave them for was about the family dog going to live in Eastern Washington on that mythical dog farm that doesn’t actually exist….all other fibs were lovingly pardoned!

    • 7 jstwndrng December 7, 2010 at 11:38

      Marni, I remember a little caucus being held on our street, at Rose’s house. Rose was older by a year or two and all the other kids adored her, and I remember this conversation where we seemed to be voting on whether we all still believed or not. I was a hold-out, even though terrible evidence was mounting, chimney-width foremost in the heap.

      Dang, that Zombie Dogs of the Palouse story is just cold. I think children need to know about pets dying. We’ve told Mara their spirits go to be with God. I dare anyone to prove me wrong.

  4. 8 marni December 7, 2010 at 13:13

    Poor Otto, that big stuffed bear of a St. Bernard. He actually did originally go live in E. Wash. with some family friends…until he crashed through the ice one winter on a frozen section of river. I think that part of the story was what prompted the lie…a little too gruesome for my young dog-adoring ears. The lie got more and more elaborate as the years went on due to my persistent pleas to visit the farm…the farmer had crops, they were busy with the harvest, they had a new baby, they were on a wonderful vacation, etc. I think eventually I knew everything about the farmer and his family except their social security numbers.

  5. 10 jstwndrng December 7, 2010 at 22:36

    (I’ve run out of reply buttons on that string, that’s why I’m commenting down here.) Praise be! Disaster was averted that day. I guess it’s a good idea to keep some very convincing serious tones up your sleeve for such occasions.

  6. 12 leatherhead109 December 15, 2010 at 07:17


    One of my favorite posts ever. Sorry to be late on the scene as usual. Just had similar conversations as quoted above with the wee pair. Of course the boy, being a practical minded, yet heavily romantic image of his father, has determinded the whole bit is a hoax, perpetrated by the parents for the said twins enjoyment. His reasoning is that I had once mentioned that magic does not exist. Tricks do. He has also reasoned that his father does not lie….. So, therefore, Santa is a gimick, a wee tale the father will niether admit to, nor deny, so as not to commmit perjury. I finds this rather amusing, and with a wink of his eye and tilt of his head gives me to know I have nothing to dread. He gleefully helps perpetrate the mystique as his sister, whom he so adores, struggles with the mystery of how Santa fits down the stovepipe, then gets the piping hot glass door open. I can’t lie to them. So I say very little. But with the two of us sitting side by side looking up the stove pipe through the fire door, I’m just dying to say, “You know, he can squeeze through there by laying a finger on the side of his nose…”
    It cracks me up, she asked me one night; “Daddy, are you Santa?” And as I gulped for air, tripped over sick bear, tried to shimmer out the door, she had a heck of a sparkle in her eye. But I stammered out something like, “Now, what would make you think that?” and she seems to have decided I’m merely an assistant. But her mind is on the move and it shan’t be long now.

    • 13 jstwndrng December 15, 2010 at 10:34

      A very rich image, brother of mine. I can see Jack winking and nodding, pleased to be “in on the gag”. Having only met him the once(t), I can tell how important that would be to him. It sounds like Emily has more of Mara’s attitude. She’s smart enough to have figured out the “truth”, but she seems tapped into a truth that is more important to her than fact, a truth about wonder, grace and unfailing hope. I hope you find ways to prolong her sojourn in that beautiful country.

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