My daughter is generous with her belief. To her, everyone is real: You are who you claim to be. So I am Mom. Brian is Dad. And also Cinderella is Cinderella, and Mary Poppins is Mary Poppins. I get into movies more than the average person. I cry even during cartoons. But in the back of my mind, no matter how wrapped up I am in the story, I know it isn’t real. For Amanda, it is. She believes the character is the person.
I am not sure if this comes with having Down syndrome or if it is just who she is. Amanda is not the type of kid who will go off with a stranger or who will try something because another person tells her to. She is cautious, but once she settles on her opinion of you, it sticks.
This brings us to Santa. Amanda’s seventh Christmas season included a holiday party that was not very well attended. Before that year she wouldn’t go near the guy in the red coat. Of course: We tell our children to avoid strangers. We say, “If someone you don’t know asks you to come with them, run away!” Then we expect them to sit on a big old man’s lap, and smile for the camera.
Santa and Mrs. Claus were sitting near a Christmas tree for hours. This allowed my daughter to go up and say hi and then scoot back to her table. She became brave enough to hand Mr. and Mrs. Claus coloring pages and sit back down. Finally she felt comfortable enough to get her picture taken with the couple.
From that moment on, Amanda was good with the Claus Family. They are magical people, treat children nicely and bring presents on Christmas. What’s not to like?
I hold fast to the spirit of Santa and Christmas. I can remember wanting to fight anyone who tried to take that magic away from my younger brother and sister. I never understood the cruel pleasure some children felt in trying to silence the bells for others once they no longer believed themselves. But should a person—no matter how old—be allowed to keep that belief?
With some children, talking about the history of St. Nicholas helps them understand the holiday tradition. I am sure I will have this conversation with my son, age 9, when the time comes. If I tried this with Amanda, who’s 14, she would look at me with pity, thinking, “You poor deluded soul, don’t you understand? Santa is Santa. I am sad for your lack of faith.” Or maybe she would hear me as a Peanuts cartoon character adult, “Wa wa wa wa, Santa. Wa wa wa wa, St. Nicholas.” Either way I don’t think it would be a successful conversation. True believers do not waver.
But does there come a point when you are too old to think the unexplainable is real? Will she become an object of ridicule if her views are known? Does the typical world get to decide when maturity means letting go of magic? Is it my job as a parent to take away the joy?
Or maybe this is one of the benefits of her being who she is. She doesn’t look for the hidden. She doesn’t second guess what is behind the image. She doesn’t try to make sense of the inexplicable.
How simple and clear. Maybe it’s the skeptics who have a problem because we’ve lost our faith. Maybe Amanda is ahead of the game. Just because most of us don’t share that belief, that doesn’t mean Amanda’s view needs to be adjusted.
I now watch The Polar Express with my children, glad that I am again able to hear the jingle of the sleigh bells. I applaud the postal workers in Miracle on 34th Street as they deposit the letters to Santa in front of the judge, proving the government accepts him as Santa Claus. For a moment I, too, believe.
My moment is Amanda’s always. My brief belief is her “of course it is.” Perhaps she is teaching me how to be content with what is, instead of trying to figure out why.
Maybe this is her gift to me, one I should not question, just as she does not question Santa. So I’ll accept this gift in the spirit of the season. This is what Santa represents. This is the wonder and goodness she sees. With her help I see it, too. Thank you, Amanda. Thank you, and Merry Christmas.
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.
Photo above: © Francesco Cura | Dreamstime.com