When my kids believed in Santa and God


Special BoxThe evolution of childhood is most faithfully documented by the Christmas lists delivered into my hands with diminishing credulity each year. They record my children's growth more accurately than their physical measurements, which are etched in startling increments all the way up the kitchen wall.

They are source documents recorded first by me, the adult scribe chronicling the material desires of my not-yet-literate toddlers, then in their own flawed phonetic script, and later still in the insolent scrawl of youths who have outgrown religion and artifice.

I store these lists in The Special Box, a battered blue receptacle whose contents have multiplied over the years so that their excess must now be contained in a sterile plastic trunk.

Here they lie with other tangible remnants of my children's pasts, love letters they have written me, gifts they have conjured from paddle pop sticks and beads and scraps of felt, spontaneous notes thanking me for taking them to the park and for 'making us smart', and informing me that 'I have left a kiss for you on the Butter Menthol wrapper!' Each is the token of a pure and ebullient love.

The early lists are infused with the wonderment of those ensnared by the Christmas myth, with requests preceded by deferential 'pleases' and premature 'thank yous' and premised on the naïve certainty that even the most excessive of desires can be filled.

My older daughter, at seven, imagines a Barbie doll that does not exist, one that has 'a very cool gun and a spare pistol and a spare pair of shoes and a very cool hat and sunglasses and real lipstick you can put on her'. Barbie, of whom I disapprove, is a recurrent theme, along with jewellery and make-up and clothes and tea-sets.

This gendered focus is redressed in later years by revelations also archived in The Special Box, by my daughter's conclusion in a primary school essay that she does not aspire to be superwoman because she likes herself the way she is; her reflection in high school that her early dreams of being a princess or dancer or archaeologist, 'while possible, might only last for me until the shine wears off. I have to try and work out my weaknesses and strengths before I can go anywhere in life'; the email she sends from Montreal when she is 17 and on a gap year informing me that 'I have decided to become the third generation of our family to climb Mt Kilimanjaro'.

My son, at five, asks for 'a big Jeep for kids that you can drive and that has a radio that works, and a real hot air balloon and real false teeth'.

Although he possesses his own set of teeth, this peculiar request will reappear in subsequent Christmas lists, and his wish will finally be granted when he is 15 and I place beneath the tree a set of wind-up teeth I have found in a novelty store. He receives this gift with a wry smile, and, just like that, a decade of waiting melts away.

When a new baby arrives, my two older children make proxy requests on her behalf: 'Please can you give my sister a doll that can cry, with a set of clothes,' writes my daughter, aged six, explicitly naming the recipient lest Father Christmas confuse her with some other baby out there in the world.

'And a teddy bear for Cheeks,' adds my four-year-old son, referring to his baby sister by the nickname he has given her, which arises from the juicy baby-cheeks on which he cannot help but plant a profusion of kisses each time he passes her by.

This baby's own lists, when she is old enough to write them, are computerised; she uses an efficient numbering system and places smiley faces alongside the must-have items. At six she longs for a map of the world and butterfly eggs, stick insects and sea monkeys; at seven, a toy dog — 'PS If it can walk that would be great :)' — and 'a never-ending supply of chocolate'.

The privations of childhood are writ large on these lists, in the 'two coca-cola lollipops and a bottle of coke' requested by my son; 'that teddy from the second-hand shop' and 'more privileges' sought by my older daughter; 'some hair ties and a vase of flowers', for which the youngest longs.

Most telling are the TV games routinely denied them until finally they lose faith in Father Christmas. 'Dear Granddad,' writes my son, aged nine. 'Thank you for the money you gave me for Christmas. We are saving for a Playstation.'

This relinquishing of the Christmas myth coincides neatly with my son's rejection of God. His lists are now written half-heartedly and, eventually, not at all. 'I'll be happy with whatever you give me,' he says, and then, 'there is nothing that I need'.

My daughters lose their religion, too, but they continue to submit their requests each year, lists which now read like commercial requisition forms: 'a manicure set — a big one, as you know', 'a handbag, as described' and 'no goofy books I'll never read — it's a waste of your money!'

The future is waiting, poised to snatch away my babies' childhood. This year I have received just one list, from my youngest, now almost a teenager. 'Mum, you did tell me to write this, so I am expecting to get everything I ask for, okay?' This is a rhetorical remark, an in-joke, for my children have lived through enough Christmases to know that their lists are not catalysts for fulfillment.

Rather, they are time capsules, snatches of history that will survive the hair straighteners and water guns and mobile phones. They will still be there long after the endless supply of chocolate has finally run out. 

Catherine MarhsallCatherine Marshall is a journalist with Jesuit Communications.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Christmas, parenting



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Existing comments

You write well, Catherine, so thanks for this delightful word-picture of your children's 'growing up'. Now, are you going to write us a similar article about their belief in God too, because I'd be interested in reading about the tortuous twists and turns of adolescence and beyond; has 'God' gone forever, just like Santa, or is there still something there?

Alan | 21 December 2011  

Despite my descendancy from a large Irish origin family with a propensity for nostalgic tears, few writings bring a tear to my eye. This writing did. A great writer once said, "Do not write what the human in man wishes to hear. Rather, write from the soul, for the soul is eternal" I suspect this is written from the soul and I am giving a copy to each of our seven children to read for Christmas. Thank you, Catherine Marshall whereever you are.

john frawley | 21 December 2011  

Thanks, Catherine. I feel I know your children very well from this charming account of their response to a myth. I enjoy all your writing.

Cecily McNeill | 22 December 2011  

This is such a lovely glimpse into Catherine's family. Like Alan, I hope to read a later chapter in their journey that might chronicle a return to their faith. It has also inspired me to dig out my keepsakes of my own children's and reflect on the memories that the passing of time brings. And to always keep the "Christ" in Christmas.

Jude | 22 December 2011  

My children followed a similar path. I wonder if I presented Christ to them as a variant of Santa Claus. Perhaps I was too absorbed in life to teach them the mening of life. I regret that if I did. I am also aware that from the age of seven my imput into their moral universe was ever diminishing year by year. Now they are grown up atheists. Sad for me and sad for them.

graham patison | 10 January 2012  

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