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The fear of Santa Claus

Last week we were invited to my son’s class for the Christmas Party. He was excited about having us there; he had a big smile on his face, antlers on his head, happily singing along with the teacher and his friends. Everything was great until the teacher mentioned Santa Claus, and the door suddenly opened. Even though it was a parent who walked into the classroom, I saw Luca’s eyes open wide while he hid behind the kid sitting next to him. And then he just started to cry. No one understood why he was crying. The teacher assumed that maybe he wasn’t feeling comfortable with such a big crowd of strangers in the class. But I saw it as soon as it happened.

The day before the party, Saint Nicholas had visited the class with Rudolph. The teacher playing the part of Saint Nick naturally had a big white beard on, a red cloak, and a tall red hat. He went from class to class giving out apples to all the children. I later learned that Luca was terrified during the entire visit, which didn’t surprise me one bit. That night when I told him Saint Nicholas was coming over to bring a bag full of goodies, he begged me not to let him in! He didn’t care about the chocolates and gifts. He didn’t want to have this scary-looking stranger over while he was asleep and helpless. So I promised that I would take the bag of treats from him at the door and make sure he didn’t come in. And the next day when I saw him react the way he did at the party, from the genuine fear he felt that Santa might possibly be coming for another visit, I wondered why we had gone along with the whole Santa story to begin with.

One Christmas Eve, many, many years ago, my aunt read The Polar Express to me, my sisters, and cousins. I can’t remember how old I was then, but I know I had long figured out that there was no Santa. I remember that it had never really made sense to me, but that I always enjoyed watching my mom try so hard nonetheless. Christmas was never less magical to me because I didn’t believe Santa was real. And when my aunt read that book to us that night, I was deeply moved by the portrayal of the magic of Christmas through the sound of jingling bells that only children who believed could hear. I thought it was beautiful, and I didn’t really feel like it had much to do with Santa. Christmas brings with it so much love, happiness, family gatherings, great food, twinkling lights and the amazing joy of giving. How can it not be magical? What the story of The Polar Express said to me was that as long as I could feel the magic of Christmas, then I would never forget the child inside me.

This Christmas, I ordered The Polar Express online to share the joy it brought me with my husband and my son, who is now old enough to get excited about the whole Christmas season. I couldn’t wait to read it to him that night. And although he fell asleep the first time I read it to him, he did enjoy it the following night, and the night after that. And although I had been in doubt of our choice to bring Santa to life in our home, reading that story to him made me feel a little better. I thought there was really no harm in believing in Santa, after all I never thought of my parents as liars because of their efforts to make us believe in someone who wasn’t real. It was part of the fun of Christmas. Really just harmless fun.

But then the day came when I saw genuine fear in my son’s eyes, just a few days after having read the story to him, and it broke my heart. I tried to explain to him that Santa is a really great guy! That he would bring him presents! And that the guy who came to their class wasn’t the real Santa. But nothing worked. He didn’t care about the gifts; he didn’t care about whether or not Santa was a nice guy. He was just terrified of the whole Santa figure; of the fact that he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake; and mostly, it scared him out of his wits that he came to your house through a chimney that we don’t have to sneak some gifts under your tree.

As we drove home after the Christmas party that day, I could hear Luca in the back seat mumbling something about how afraid he was. He couldn’t stop crying. Nothing I said made it better. Right then and there, my husband and I decided to break it to him. At the age of four, our son found out the truth about Santa. He was just a story we told during Christmas. He was someone we sang about. Some people dressed up like him for fun. But that was it. He wasn’t real.

For a few days after that I was really sad about what we had done. I felt bad about the fact that we started the whole Santa deal in our home when we knew how sensitive and logical Luca was. And I totally understand where the fear of Santa Claus comes from. He rationalizes and over thinks everything. And if you really think about Santa, he really is scary. I don’t’ want anyone coming into my house when I’m sleeping, no matter whom it is! And especially not down the chimney. That’s just creepy. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s creepy. So for a child who reasons like a grown up, I can only imagine what was going on through his head.

I hadn’t really given it any thought before. I just decided I’d go with the flow, just because I assumed it would be fun. And I thought maybe I’d be a mean mommy not to when all the kids in Luca’s class were thrilled about Santa’s existence. But even now, after having found out the truth about Santa Claus, Luca still wakes up every morning asking if he can open another window on his Advent calendar, excited about the arrival of Christmas morning. He’s looking forward to having my family coming to stay with us for the holidays. He still talks about the presents he would like to see under the tree on Christmas day. He’s enjoying the cookies, the gingerbread houses, the decorated streets, the trees, the whole Christmas spirit really, even if Santa is not a part of it.

And you know what? I’m kind of happy that the presents under the tree will say “From Mommy and Daddy, with love”.

How do you cope with holiday stress? Does your child feel the same way about Saint Nick?

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