My daughter was 7 when I got The Question.
She was a Tooth Fairy fanatic and had established an ongoing correspondence with our personal fairyland ambassador, Tara.
But one of her darling classmates had suggested that perhaps Tara wasn’t real after all.
I remember it in vivid detail: my daughter standing at the bathroom sink, staring at me with her fierce green eyes, saying, “Are you really Tara? Because if you are, I’m gonna be MAD!”
My heart dropped. At stake was her faith in me, in magic, perhaps even in Santa Claus. I looked at her lovingly and realized I had only one option:
“What do you think?” I answered sweetly.
She asked again, and I deflected it right back. She dropped it.
Yes, it was the classic panic move. Yes, I am a big chicken. But I wasn’t ready to let go, and neither was she.
So here we are at that time of year when parents are faced with the dilemma of how to explain the wonders of Santa to an ever-maturing young mind.
I’ve read some lovely blog posts from parents who’ve grappled with this question. They write letters to their children explaining that we’re all Santa, that Santa is alive in our hearts, etc.
That’s very nice. We prefer avoidance. My kids have never asked point-blank, and I haven’t offered it up.
They have questioned the logistics of delivering packages to millions of children in one night. But they also came up with their own explanations. My son at one point decided that Santa slows down time, which is why Christmas Eve feels like the longest day of the year.
Books and movies provided more ammunition. In “Elf,” Santa’s sleigh is powered by the Christmas spirit of everyday people — and rockets. “The Santa Clause” showed how fireplaces expand to elevator size (it could happen). And in “The Polar Express,” only those who believe can hear the magic bell.
Scientists have entered the fray, with a now-famous explanation of the physics required for Santa’s around-the-world voyage. It calculates, for example, that Santa has 31 hours to work with on Christmas Eve, given various time zones. If he visits 91.8 million homes (based on 378 million Christian children in the world, at roughly 3.5 per household), he’d have to stop at 822.6 per second.
Seemingly impossible — but one rebuttal pointed out that Santa would likely FedEx packages ahead of time because he wouldn’t be able to fly into Air Force bases or other no-fly zones. And relativity makes time do strange things as you move faster. Just watch a “Star Trek” episode.
Another rebuttal challenged the idea of one Santa. Given his Catholic roots, we can assume the original Santa and Mrs. Claus have by now many, many descendants — more than enough to handle toy delivery.
Those of us who act as Santa’s elves also jump through some big hoops to preserve belief — way beyond the cookies and milk.
A friend remembers discovering, at the pivotal age of fourth grade, actual reindeer prints on the roof of her house. Her parents have yet to offer a plausible explanation.
When I was young, we’d all gather at my grandmother’s house on Christmas night to await an appearance by Santa. Some of the parents would slip outside to check on his progress, and we’d hear the tinkling of sleighbells and footsteps on the roof. Then he’d show up — walking through the front door rather than jumping out of the fireplace — brushing snow off of his suit. It was pretty magical (though he did bear a striking resemblance to a family friend).
Technology has expanded our options. There’s the NORAD Santa tracker (and a Google version, of course), companies that facilitate letters and phone calls from Santa, apps that show him actually visiting your house.
My daughter once asked why no one had ever found the North Pole, in this age of GPS and cellphones. Easy: It’s camouflaged by stealth technology.
And with the government intercepting virtually any phone call anywhere and cameras watching our every move, it’s not inconceivable that Santa would know who’s been bad or good. Santa as NSA.
A bigger issue for my kids was why we needed to collect gifts for needy families through our “giving tree” at church. Why would Santa skip their house?
Beth Rogers of Urbana had the answer: Santa picks up those presents for children. We’re just helping him. Like the mall Santas.
Her general approach was to gently ease her two kids into a broader understanding of Santa. She learned it from her own mother, a former fourth-grade teacher, who at 72 remains adamant about her belief in Santa.
“Her concept of Santa is the concept of giving. You went from believing to making others believe,” she says.
She remembers the Christmas that hit home. She was 15, her brother was 13, and her mom had given birth two weeks earlier to their little brother. Her father had moved across the country, and her mom was “trying to do Christmas all by herself.”
When they put out their stockings, the two teens realized there was no stocking for their mom or little brother. So, in the middle of the night, they filled two stockings with whatever they could scrounge: candy from their own stockings, oranges, quarters, baby formula, their mom’s coffee dispenser.
“All that mattered is that there was something there, not what it was. The look on my mom’s face was priceless. Her mouth just dropped open, and she started crying.”
A couple of weeks ago, after we got out our Advent calendar, I found something hanging on our bedroom wall. “Merry Christmas — Gift Mail” it said, in my daughter’s handwriting. Inside was a letter telling us to check every few days for a Christmas surprise. It was signed,“Santa Claus/Chris Cringle/St. Nicholas/St. Nick/Whatever you want to call me.”
I think she gets it.
If The Question comes up again, I’ll shrug and say, “I still believe.” And I hope — no, I believe — they’ll do the same for their kids someday.
Photo: Hanna Carswell, 4, of Tuscola shares her wish list with Santa Claus and his elf, Zoe Clifton, 7, of Tuscola at the Tuscola Community Building earlier this month. Photo by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette.