Please read — and tell everybody you know to read — Brian Kaller’s account of having to admit to his little girl that Santa Claus isn’t real. The way he handled it was breathtakingly wise, even magical. Excerpt:
“And there were Haast’s Eagles in the book,” she said. “And dire wolves, and Irish elk.” That’s right, I said. All those things were real, and there were things like dwarves and elves too.
These are inside references for my daughter and I, so let me give a bit of background: Since she was a baby, almost every night, I told her stories about the natural world that existed until recently – trees so large many men could not form a chain around them, sloths that could look in her second-story window, beavers the size of cars and dire wolves like fairy-tale villains.
All those were in the now-USA, but these islands used to have the Irish elk, whose four-metre antlers negotiated the great forests here. In Australia she knows there were kangaroos taller than men and thylacines – giant marsupial predators – like wolves with baby pouches and tiger stripes. In New Zealand, she knows – the one place where birds took over from dinosaurs rather than mammals – birds the size of cattle ran from Haast’s Eagles that hunted like airborne tigers. I tell her, at bedtime, how Scotland and Missouri and China all looked like the Serengeti or the Amazon – and except for some people, they still would.
I caution her not to bring this up with the other children at school, so she is not ostracised. Few people I know have even heard of such animals, or associate them somehow with dinosaurs. But they existed only a short time ago – the last mammoths coexisted with the first pyramids, and the last thylacine with the first televisions.
I brought her up with those stories so that she would be one of the few who saw the army of clamouring ghosts around us, who recognise the missing pieces of the world. This is a lot to weigh on a child, of course, so I introduced this slowly, as you do when talking about death and sex, and balanced those stories with that of the little victories – for example, the one man who brought the black robin back to life from the edge, or the few who saved what she calls “parrot-bunnies” in New Zealand. I’ve told her stories of people around the world who are rescuing pieces of the World Gone By, and she wants to be one of them – for Christmas, she asked to adopt an Amur leopard.
So we incorporate that knowledge into what we read – I explain that the oldest story, Gilgamesh, began with the felling of the great trees, and that the land turned to desert. When she heard the story of Noah, she understood that floods happen in lands where the trees are cleared away, as happened here in Ireland. When we read the story of Samson, she instantly saw what most children would not – that he lived in the desert left by Gilgamesh’s people, and fought an animal that was endangered even then, and extinct in that part of the world now.
Read the whole thing. Right after this past Christmas, our Lucas, almost nine, asked Julie if Santa was real. “I don’t care if the answer is no, Mom, I just want to know the truth,” he said. So she told him. I haven’t had the chance to circle back to him one on one to talk with him about it, but thanks to Brian Kaller’s story, I now have a better idea what to say to my son about myth and truth.