and other things that you don’t want your three-year-old to announce during preschool story time.
The question took me by surprise.
Up to this point, our family had employed a very successful ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ policy about the man with the reindeer. It went like this–Mama and Daddy get you presents because we love you. Your grandparents get you more (and better) presents because they love you and have disposable income. Aren’t those silly reindeer cute? And that man with the big white beard, isn’t he funny?
“Mama, is Santa real?”
The question came from the three-year-old, from the backseat of the car, on the drive to Thanksgiving. The timing surprised me, but don’t worry– I was prepared.
“Well, honey, St. Nicholas was real. He lived a long time ago and gave presents to children. He loved children so much, and now we remember him when we see Santa.”
“Is St. Nicholas still alive?”
“Well… (I sensed that we were entering deeper waters)… no, not really. He lived a long time ago.”
A long pause while both of my daughters considered this information. Then the youngest spoke.
“Mama, Santa is died?!?!?”
So. At this point I mumbled something about no-honey-Santa-is-still-real-in-stories-and-won’t-you-be-excited-to-see-the-doggies-at-Thanksgiving, and hoped that they would forget. It worked.
Until the drive home. My husband was driving the other car, and I was waiting for them to fall asleep. Instead, our youngest started sobbing dramatically, clearly intending to communicate her distress. “What’s wrong, honey?” She breathed loudly. “I sad,” she declared, “because,” sob, sob, sniffle, “Santa is died.”
Long pause. Here we go again.
“You mean, Santa is dead,” her older sister corrected.
I interrupted. “No, no… sweetie… umm… Santa isn’t dead. St. Nicolas is dead because he lived a long time ago, but now he lives in God’s house, and we remember him and… uh… Santa… well… you see Santas all over the place this time of year. And we tell Santa stories too, and…”
She was not appeased (yes, if you are wondering, this is the “Mama, You No Eat Animals!” daughter). Sob, sob, sob… her volume was increasing now… “I sad because Santa is died!”
“Santa is dead.” The grammar police again.
I sighed, reached back, and held her hand.
If you would like to judge me for this little episode, you won’t be alone. For days I berated myself about spoiling the magic of childhood; for making something that could have been so simple, so complicated; and for not having the right words when the moment came.
But then it got worse. Remorse turned to panic as I remembered. Preschool. We had four weeks of preschool until Christmas. I could see it all unfold before my eyes. A crowd of three-year-olds listens intently as an unsuspecting teacher turns a page in a storybook. “Look children, who is this man in the red suit?” A chorus of sweet voices, “Santa! That’s Santa!”
And then my daughter would make her announcement.
Briefly, I considered keeping her home for the month of December, but then I decided to start by talking with her teacher.
It was the end of the day, and parents were bundling their children. I found the teacher. “Um, Can I talk with you about something?” She could tell that I had something serious to say. She nodded, we stepped into the hallway, and I blurted out my story. When I was finally finished, I looked down at the ground and waited. Would we be kicked out of preschool? Maybe I should have just kept her at home, and kept my mouth shut. Now it was too late. I looked up.
She didn’t looked shocked. Quite the contrary… her expression was more like, “so, this was your serious news?” She started to walk back to the other children, leaving me with a simple, “Oh, don’t worry about that. We did something similar in my family, and my niece used to say the same thing. Don’t worry about it at all.” Then she was gone, back to the pressing needs of unmittened hands.
And that was it.
That was it… so far… but we still have four weeks to go. Four weeks to go, and that’s just this year.
But I’ve decided to stop nursing my remorse and panic. Here’s why. In our brief encounter, here’s what I learned from my daughter’s preschool teacher: It’s okay. Kids say things. Parents say things. Families do things differently. Life goes on.
And if a declaration like “Santa is died” isn’t as shocking as I imagined, maybe we can just keep figuring this all out.