When the 4-year-old starts questioning Santa Claus

For The Baltimore Sun
Now even the preschoolers are getting skeptical about Mr. Claus.

I can remember the moment it happened, though I can't remember exactly how old I was. Maybe 8 or 9.

The letter from Santa sat on the table, perched next to the crumb-covered plate where Pillsbury Slice-and-Bake cookies had been the night before. I could hear his booming, cheerful voice in my head, telling me I'd been a good girl, and how my parents were proud of me. My heart was swelling with excitement, when all of a sudden I noticed ... the handwriting.

Though she tried — printing carefully, the serifs exaggerated, the color ostentatious — I was old enough to recognize the tell-tale signs of my mother's penmanship. And I knew, instantly: Santa Claus wasn't real.

Pleaser that I was (eldest child, nonconfrontational), I opted not to let on, continuing instead with the ruse to get to the presents without further delay. I can't remember now if I felt sadness, realizing in that instant that all of childhood's mythical characters were likely fakes, but I do recall carrying around a certain smugness for a time. I knew something the adults didn't know I knew. And it made me feel smarter than them, and grown-up for protecting their feelings. What other secrets were out there to discover? What world mysteries could I solve if I just paid close enough attention to the clues?

Mostly, I was proud. I'd figured this out on my own.

As an adult, introducing my three young children to the idea of Santa Claus was never a question. My husband and I saw only fun in it, for them and for us, as we relived the childhood magic of wrapped and shiny things miraculously appearing under the Christmas tree in what seemed like only a few minutes between finally, fitfully falling asleep and bolting awake before dawn.

And it has been fun. (Not to mention highly effective for rapid — though not long-lasting — behavior modification.) Until earlier this month, when our 4-year-old came home with a concern. A classmate had told her that Santa was not real.

"She said the parents buy the presents and put them under the tree," my girl said, in a voice partly skeptical, but partly sad, too.

I reminded her that not all families believe in Santa Claus, and that's OK. And Santa can't come to your house if you don't believe. Turns out her classmate had an answer for that, too.

"She said mommies and daddies just tell you that because they don't want us to be sad!"

I don't know that I had a convincing answer for that one. I think I said something pat like, "Well, that's not true," and moved on to safer ground.

Nearby, her brothers — two years older — were unfazed. But my girl, she's "been here before," as they say. Her arms were crossed. Something in the cookies-and-milk ain't right, her big eyes said. Come clean!

I felt bad for the internal squall rocking her preschool world: She wants to be in the know. But she also wants to believe.

Call me crazy, but I did not ever think that I would have to convince my 4-year-old — who still carries her baby blanket around with her daily — that Santa is real. I figured I had a few years left before we either broke the news to the boys (with the inevitable bribe to keep the secret from their sister), or one of the three — probably her, let's just keep it real — figured it out for themselves, like I did.

I know there are many who believe the Santa story is problematic. Whether for religious reasons, or because some experts say it's damaging to children to be lied to by people they love, trust and depend on for everything. (See this article, for example.)

I absolutely see the logic there. But Santa Claus isn't about logic. It's about magic.

There's so little time in kids' lives when magic is truly magical. When they wake up thrilled to find a fairy-placed dollar bill under the pillow. Or fall asleep with visions of American Girl dolls dancing in their heads.

My husband and I, we want to make that time last as long as we — and Santa — possibly can.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works as vice president at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 6-year-old sons, a 4-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanika@thehatchergroup.com. Her column appears monthly.

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