It was a dark, tempestuous Christmas Eve in Mount Holly, where my family had joined Aunt Candy, Uncle Dick, Granny, Gramps, and cousins Sara and Karen at Granny’s house. Fire roared in the fireplace, casting a glow on the antique ornaments sparkling on the tree we had just gotten from her woods.
“Woooooo! Wooooo!” sounded an ominous, whistling howl, which came down the chimney on especially blustery nights.
“Oh, listen! It’s Mrs. Winklebottom,” said Granny. “The wind woke her up.”
Wide-eyed and fearful, I shuddered as the screech — higher pitched than an owl — shrieked through the house until the wind died down.
“Who is Mrs. Winklebottom?” I asked.
“She lives in the chimney.”
“She does? What about when Santa comes?” I asked, worried.
“She’ll let him down.”
“What about the fire in the fireplace?”
“He’s fireproof,” Granny said. Not entirely reassured, I paced around the rattling house hoping for a happy Christmas. I ate wrapped chocolates and sweets set out in bowls around the house. I looked out the dark window and listened to the blizzard, worrying the sleigh would not be able to get here in this stormy weather.
Everyone else did not seem to be concerned. Instead they sat in the living room drinking hot chocolate and occasionally breaking into song along with Handel’s “Messiah,” which played on the record player at 33 revolutions per minute.
Later that evening, we heard noises on the roof. One of the grownups declared there were reindeer up there, and, most likely, Santa’s sleigh had arrived. However, a grownup said, Santa would not come in and deliver presents until all the children were asleep in bed. But something didn’t seem right when Uncle Dick came down the stairs with snowflakes in his hair and on the shoulders of his dark navy blue fisherman’s sweater.
I didn’t know what to believe. I began to suspect this at a very early age: grownups are liars. Then, I grew up and had my turn.
Believing in Fairies
What is a lie? What is pretend? What is fun? Those questions collided on me one day when my young son looked me straight in the eye to ask about the truth about imaginary holiday friends.
My son was six when he first encountered the Tooth Fairy after losing his tooth at his grandmother’s house in Rhode Island. Grandma Margaret had few office supplies, so I put his tooth in a crumpled, used window envelope from one of her monthly bills. The next morning he almost forgot about the tooth, but I reminded him. He ran upstairs to the bed, checked under the pillow, and came running down waving a dollar bill in each hand.
“The Tooth Fairy came! She gave me two dollars!” he said. He was already familiar with the unseen generosity of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny perpetuated by myself, my then-husband, and my late parents and in-laws.
When we got home to Vermont a few days later, he lost his second tooth. This time he wrote “Tooth Fairy” in pink marker on a special envelope for us to enclose his tiny tooth and place it under his pillow.
“The Tooth Fairy came again!” he said the next morning, happily waving two dollar bills. It was a magical beginning of a summer full of sun and faith in fairies … until swimming lessons started. After lessons, he began playing in the playground until lunch time. It was there he began to socialize with a little boy named Elijah, a few months older than my son. Elijah lost his third tooth on the first day of swimming lessons and proudly showed it off, but proclaimed he did not believe in the Tooth Fairy.
“Let me tell you a story,” he leveled with my son as they dug holes in the sand. “I put a tooth under my pillow and the next morning the tooth was still there. I went to tell my Mom, and she said, ‘I forgot.’” My son listened, but he didn’t respond.
That evening at home, I asked my son what he thought about what Elijah had said about the Tooth Fairy, and he said, “I didn’t believe him. There is a Tooth Fairy, isn’t there? Isn’t there? Mom, tell me the truth.” His big brown eyes looked earnestly into my own, and I could not tell a lie.
“No. It is just something moms do to make life more fun.”
He looked down for a moment, and then asked, “What about the Easter Bunny? What about Santa Claus?” Our whole childhood world of pretend came crashing down.
“Things moms do to make life more fun,” I said quietly, also looking down. He asked where I get the boxes, candy, and eggs to pull off the hoaxes. I told him I bought them at the store. He looked somewhat disappointed and deflated, but he did not cry or get mad as I feared he would when this day came: when he learned it was a lie.
“Mom, I am still going to believe in Santa Claus.”
“Good. Me too,” I said. “I still do believe in Santa Claus.” I felt awkward about the whole unraveling of some of the more fun parts about being a mother — that is, creating a playful world of make-believe to soften the blows of life’s cruel truths.
And from then on, I continued to invite him to put his lost teeth in envelopes and the Tooth Fairy still secretly visited to enrich him for his loss. And, also from then on, stockings are hung at my house for Santa.