Here is something I wrote for The Age.
Recently, my six-year-old came home from school and asked, “Is Santa real?”
I wasn’t prepared for this. I gulped. I floundered. Frankly, I would have preferred ‘where do babies come from?’
Apparently, word had got around the playground that Santa doesn’t exist.
“But I spoke to him on the phone last year,” she said.
Perfect, I thought. Irrefutable evidence right there.
“Yes, you did!”
But then the bombshell: “Dad said he isn’t real.”
Dad said what? Surely, the question of whether Santa is fiction or non-fiction should be a joint parenting decision; it’s up there with choosing your child’s school and whether they learn flute or violin. We really needed to have presented a united front on this one.
Sensing my befuddlement, she made a helpful suggestion: “You could Google ‘is Santa real?’”.
“Well, I could, but it’s a mystery and no one really knows for sure,” I said, trying to buy myself more time.
I respect kids’ intelligence and their right to know the truth, but of course the problem is deciding how much truth is appropriate. To see the wonder in their eyes at the thought of Santa is to see something real and precious. It’s the purest magic, and to casually end that feels wrong. Plus, they’re growing up at warp speed. They’ll be busy vaping and scrolling tik toks in no time, and I wanted her to believe just a little longer.
I remember when I found out. I awoke one Christmas to find that the big guy had left my brother and me a one-dollar coin and a Minties lolly. And he’d left it in an old white bucket. As for his note, Mother had made no attempt whatsoever to disguise her distinctive cursive handwriting. No nice old man would leave me a dollar and a Mintie, I thought to myself. Case closed.
I did not want my child to face that at six.
A complicating factor was that her dad had volunteered to be Father Christmas at a community event. My kids would spot him a mile off, and no amount of white facial hair was going to change that. This would send her the message that Santa isn’t real, but if he is real he’s your dad, who doesn’t believe in himself.
In desperation, I went for the truth.
“Santa’s proper name is Saint Nicholas and he lived many years ago. The Father Christmases you see outside Woollies aren’t actually him, but they represent Saint Nicholas, who was the real deal.”
Naturally, the ‘tell me mores’ started, so we did some online ‘research’ about St Nick. The ‘facts’ were on my side. He was a protector of children. He generously helped a poor family who couldn’t afford dowries by throwing pouches of gold through their windows at night. The gold would land in stockings drying by the fire.
He travelled on horseback and would give well-behaved children sweets and presents (gosh, maybe that was him with the Minties after all), and children would leave carrots out for his horse.
St Nicholas also brought three children back to life after an evil butcher had murdered them and put them in a barrel to pickle (I censored that story, heavily).
As we learned more about this superhero, I could see myth, history and magic starting to blend in my daughter’s mind. She was disquieted and intrigued. We decided that St Nicholas was a real person who helped people with his special powers and that perhaps his magic is still with us today in some form. And that strange and miraculous things happen, but we can’t explain why.
I could tell that she wanted to believe, and this explanation was satisfactory. She has even gone back to penning some letters to Santa (one must hedge one’s bets): Dear Santa, My wish is for a giny pig [guinea pig]. If you say no that’s OK.
Come Easter, my partner and I will need to make sure we’re as one on the rabbit. Though actually, he admitted to me that he only denied Santa’s existence because he thought I would.
But for this Christmas at least, we’ve managed to maintain the magic.