When our oldest kid was three, we put him to bed and then tucked his baby brother into his crib, closing each bedroom door softly so as not to wake them. The excitement of Christmas for the older one was more than enough to keep him awake later than we wanted, and my wife and I had things to do.
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Silently, carefully, we crept upstairs, pulled out the massive hidden box from the closet, and began separating the pieces and planks and screws and parts on the carpet of the living room. They were labeled well, which is more than I can say for all the Ikea furniture over the years, but with tired eyes and yawns interrupting every two minutes, the difficulty level of assembly grew incrementally harder as the night wore on.
I’m not the kind of superhero who can work with teensy screws and knots in individual threads past midnight anymore. My late nights got burned out early with all those crazy bus driving hours I did long before kids came into my life. Bedtime comes early in this household, and Christmas Eve should be no exception. But, alas, we wanted our kids to enjoy the magic of discovery in the morning, and nothing says wow like a huge fire station, complete with a treadmill, bunk bed, large screen TV, and basketball hoop for the little plastic figurines to enjoy.
As an aside, one of the greatest joys of having children for me has been that I finally get to buy all the toys I wanted as a kid.
And man did I ever want a fire station like this!! I mean, it’s absolutely for the children to enjoy. Of course.
At one point the baby started fussing, and that woke up the older one, and we rushed to throw a blanket over the half-done creation on the floor as we attended to their needs. Babies settled, hearts thundering, we gave each other a “whew” look and got back to business.
Included in the kit were two little cars for the fire fighter dolls to drive. One was a white ambulance, the other was a red fire truck. Trust me when I say, nothing in the instructions said anything about batteries in the red fire truck, and no sooner did I have the wheels snapped onto that thing than I hit the secret button on the back and set off the wailing siren. It was LOUD. No other options presented themselves, so I threw my whole body over it, grabbing the nearby blanket to help smother the sound, and I cringed as we waited for the alarm bell to shut off.
My wife looked at me like I was the stupidest human being alive. Which was fair.
But that wasn’t the only night we went through such a crazy ritual. We assembled a fire station, a treehouse with forest critters, a play kitchen, a dollhouse, and several bicycles. We’ve filled stockings. We’ve exchanged Halloween and Easter candy for less-sugary treats or toys. I’ve snuck into their bedrooms countless nights to swap money for baby teeth.
Pro tip – It’s worth explaining to young children in loft beds that the Tooth Fairy cannot be expected to lug the weight of that huge tooth all the way down from their high-up bed, and it’s much more polite to leave it on their desk or dresser with a note and a big, colorful arrow drawn on paper to guide them to it. After all, Teeth Fairies are small, and tooths are heavy. This is basic physics.1
You see, when our kids were very, very small, my wife and I did the same thing that so many families do. We lied to them.
We talked about Santa bringing presents. We hyped up the Tooth Fairy. Casper visited after Halloween night, and Peter Rabbit left paw prints after Easter.
But that wasn’t all.
There were also stories about faeries, like the kind who live in the wild and wait to trick you and lure you in, or the ones who make rings of mushrooms in the green grass in spring. My wife has brought more than a few Irish tales into our kids’ upbringing, and I’m just as entranced by them as the boys are.
I distinctly recall, as a child, wishing and believing with all my heart that unicorns were real. It became a bit of an obsession at one point, spurred on by this great photo journal of an author who went looking for unicorns in the wild parts of the world. Their book was filled with magnificent photos of waterfalls and meadows of wildflowers, and the author said quite clearly in between each crisp image of natural beauty that most people would not be able to see the unicorns in those pictures, that they were only visible to those who believed.
Oh you can bet I stared at that book for a solid month, chanting and meditating and BELIEVEING with every muscle in my little body.
So when we finally came clean to our kids about “the truth about Santa,” they had questions. Why had we let them believe in him that whole time? Who had been writing letters back to them each year?2 And what crazy parent would sit up for half the night assembling toys and filling stockings and exchanging candy??
This crazy parent, I answered.
We had tried, in the last couple of years, to hint at this. And more than once we overheard our kids have intense conversations about the improbability of these imaginary creatures performing the acts they were known for.
D – “How does the Easter Bunny carry the candy from house to house? You don’t think it’s an adult who does it, do you?”
S – “Parents don’t even like candy. They could not be the ones leaving candy in our Easter baskets.”
D – “Nope. And they also like to sleep. I mean, they would have to stay up half the night to put all that stuff in our stockings and under the tree. No way would they do that!”
S – “And the candy canes! More candy!”
D – “And the annoying toys they hate!”
When one of them would start down the path of exploring alternatives to the Tooth Fairy being real, the other one would jump in and correct their course each time. After a while, my wife and I started to wonder if they would ever figure out who was really doing all the tooth/candy/toy/money swaps while they slept.
To be clear, I did not, at any point, wish to be caught. Many was the time I had to find a convenient excuse for accidentally waking them by stepping on that one squeaky floorboard. Several times I stepped on Lego on the floor and almost died from the pain of NOT screaming. But the looks of wonder and joy and delight were worth all of the late nights and awkward excuses.
I didn’t set out to lie to my children, and I made sure to point out to them that no one can really say for sure whether Santa or Casper are real or imagined. Maybe you don’t believe in them, but the world is vast, and I have not yet checked each corner of it to prove or disprove their existence.
More important to me is to learn to believe, to hold onto that feeling of mystery and joy in the unexplained. I don’t always need to know why or how, and sometimes I am better for not knowing. I can appreciate the beauty of things in this world without understanding how they came to be.
Some part of the magic between myself and my children was lost when I revealed all of this to them. I handed over the crisp bill to my oldest child when he lost that recent tooth, and I think he felt it, too. It wasn’t the same. And so I’ve asked them to consider how they want these mysteries to play out in their lives. Do they want to believe? And to make that happen, are they willing to participate in the spirit of building that mystery together? Is it possible that the idea of Santa is real as long as we are all willing to play our part, to stay up late building just one more toy for the child we love?
Whatever your beliefs are, I hope their mystery brings you the greatest of joys.
Your trans friend,
I am also terrible at stumbling around in the dark and finding the tooth under their pillow without waking them.
There is a lovely mailbox nearby that we can go to each year, deposit a letter to Santa (including a return-addressed envelope), and Santa will send a letter back. Our kids have kept every single letter from Santa.