The Real Magic of Christmas - An imaginary conversation with parents


"I can't wait for you to understand how simple children's needs are"

"I encourage every teacher and every parent not to direct and instruct the child, 
but to be humble and simple in dealing with young children. 
Their lives are new, free from rivalry and external ambitions, 
it takes so little to make them happy, 
to let them work in their own way towards the normal development 
of the man and woman they will become. 

The greatest gift that we can bestow upon our children
is the restraint to be imposed on ourselves."

Maria Montessori speaks to parents [2017]

I never believed in Santa, just because it was not part of our family traditions. 
I don't feel I missed out on any magic, Christmas has always felt very magical to me , and the best time of the year.
A slow time for unrestricted play, for books and fun with my parents. They were finally there, rested and present. 
It was the time for making the home beautiful, lighting candles and keeping them on all day, my mum was the true magician there.
Of course I loved gifts. In our home they used to build up under the tree in the days before Christmas, they wouldn't appear on the 25th. 

There was a silent family work behind those precious parcels. I used to spend so much time trying to figure out which present belonged to whom and watching the decorations hanging from the Christmas tree. These were not just baubles but beautiful and fragile ornaments made of glass and wood. They were my toys during the advent, they were always the same yet felt so new every year.

There was no chocolate or mini-gifts advent calendars, I had no idea they even existed until I grew up. We used to have those very basic traditional German advent calendars with small windows and wintery scenes behind, not much really, although I swear I was waking up each and every morning in December so incredibly excited to open those tiny windows. 

I'm not here to say that's the right way of doing it, it's just a way that makes sense to us now as a family and a habit that I have kept with my children. I see the practice of treats and objects (no matter how small) coming in every day of the month as unnecessary, I prefer to keep the wait minimal and focus on the environment instead.

We would open presents on Christmas Eve and I remember how much I loved helping out in the kitchen to cook our family meal and to decorate the table for our feast. I loved watching my family exchanging presents, grown ups and children giving to each others. I loved seeing my dad handing small parcels over to my mum. 

I didn't need Santa at all

So what is all this 'magic' many parents talk about?

Many people will just tend to follow their childhood memories and embrace traditions without overthinking it, without any intention to do any harm.
I honestly believe many parents have the best intentions when they start making up playful stories about Santa and Elves. They just think they need to give all of that to their children. 

They also may themselves enjoy the game, they may need it, more than their children do.

I understand that, but let's try to stop and think for a minute before starting this very long tradition.
Let's put all of this into a different perspective.
Isn't it our responsibility as parents to discern between traditions and beliefs that's worth perpetuating in our family?
It certainly is our responsibility to know how the psychic and moral development of our children works.

Children need a simple life more than we think.

So I have imagined answering the most common concerns I've heard among parents.

Here I'm not even mentioning the option of bringing Santa or cheeky Elves into play to induce a change in the child's behaviour ('being good'). Sorry but that's a no-no.
Any kind of punishment, threat ('Santa doesn't visit naughty children' is a threat) or reward (for example allowing extra presents if the child performs well in school) interferes with the joy of work for its own sake and with a healthy moral development.
The completion of the work is ( should be) the only reward the child is after.
"Those who tried to learn about childhood from children
(instead of from their own ideas as adults) 
were really surprised by the discoveries they made"

"Adults, despite all their psychology, have not yet understood the child's motives. 
It is difficult for us, because  our purposes are very different. 
We only want material things, 
while the child only wants an occupation that interests him"

"We can love our children so dearly that we ignore what is best for them"
Maria Montessori speaks to parents [2017]

It's no big deal, they will eventually understand that Santa is not real. Let them enjoy it in the meantime.

We must understand that everything we say to young children up to the age of 7 is entirely true to them.
Children only acquire capability to discern between what's real and what's not (and to understand the meaning of the word 'real') only after then. That is after they've lived on this planet a sufficient number of years, having had the opportunity to experience reality. And also when their mind has developed abstraction skills. This happens for all children between the age of 6 and 12, IF they had the opportunity to explore reality enough when they were little. 
That's the time when we can play and experiment more comfortably with fantasy (I'm talking about fiction books, still not Santa:)

So we need to be very careful about everything we say to children, as that is entirely real for them. 
It can be scary too, to think of a man, maybe funny but still a stranger, entering their home from the sky through a chimney. Scarier than we think.

Also let's think about consistency, do we want our four year old to believe that reins can fly? 
Because they'll believe it. For real. How do we make up for that statement on the remaining days of the year?
Do we really want them to believe that things appear out of nothing, that a stranger wants to give them presents, and, more importantly, that Christmas is all about this?

A small lie will not ruin them. It's just for fun.

That of Santa is such a long-lasting, involved lie between parents and children.
Parents can be extremely convincing and lie about Santa for years. Think from the child's perspective: how would you feel?

Psychologists agree that lying to children, even about something fun and frivolous, could undermine their trust in their parents, especially if their relationship isn't strong enough yet.
When they eventually discover that magic is not real the disappointment can be very bad and they may feel humiliated and hopeless.

I didn't believe in Santa as a child but we did celebrate Saint Lucy on the night of December 12th, leaving mandarines, biscuits and milk, and food for her donkey.  I still remember the bitterness and the tears, when I found out she wasn't real. Not because I couldn't have presents anymore, but because I thought of all the years I had spent time planning, thinking and dreaming about it. My mother's lies. Me under the duvet hoping to fall asleep, worried that this lady could tiptoe into my room.
I wondered what else my parents could lie about, if they were able to do it with such conviction for so long.

Maybe your own memories of Santa as a child are not as striking as mine, although we often remove good bits of our emotional past as we grow, so we should review it more carefully before making decisions based on that only.
Either way, we won't do children any favour by administering them these stories.

There is potential for children to be harmed in these lies and as parents we have the responsibility to choose a long-view over some short-lived fun. We need to choose to lay the foundation for a relationship based on respect.

I do respect my child.

Maybe yes, on a speculative level. But I mean literally.
We don't respect our child when we interrupt her while she is busy dressing up her doll, focused on coordinating the movements needed to button its dress.
We don't respect our child when we turn to him abruptly, to direct him or ask him things.
We don't respect our child when we use childish language, altering the words that he is putting so much energy in learning (how would you feel if you were in a foreign country trying to learn the language, and your guide would repeatedly teach you the wrong words, how would you be able to survive?)
We don't respect our child by making up stories about the world that he wants so badly to understand.
We often behave in this way because we think, more or less consciously, that the child's personality is at a lower level. We tend to make them adapt to our world ignoring the fact that they live in their world.
This world, the one they crave, is not that of fantasy, as many adults believe, it's the real world.

That's what I mean with respectful parenting, and the message Maria Montessori sent out to parents out loud is all about respect. Parents must become humble.

There is an interesting passage in the book  'The child in the family' [1956] where Maria Montessori talks about  the Epiphany, which at that time was the main celebration for children across Italy, as much as St Nicholas in other parts of Europe.

Often adults, who struggle to awaken sincerity in the child, surround him with falsehood, 
which cannot even be counted among the 'conventional lies', 
but is premeditated and has the sole purpose to deceive the child. 
Perhaps we should consider in this respect the stories that are told to children 
about the Epiphany and the Befana delivering gifts.
One day, a mother who was suffering at the idea of this deception 
tried to confess it to her little girl. 
The little girl was so disappointed that she was sad for a week. 
The mother was crying as she told me about this little drama.

However, the situation is not always so serious. 
Another mother made the same confession to her child. 
He laughed: "Oh mom! I have known for a long time that the Befana does not exist!"
"Then why didn't you tell me?"
"Mama dear, I saw that you were so pleased!"

Therefore, the parts are often reversed.
The children, who are very fine observers, take pity on their parents 
and indulge them to please them.

[Maria Montessori, The Child in The Family]

But they will miss out on the magic of Christmas!

It may sound counterintuitive,  but it's by setting them free from our magic that we actively feed children's imagination. 
Imagination is a powerful, creative force, it's not about the ability to believe. As we said, young children will believe any story that we make up, and will depend on us to expand the story.  
Where do we leave children when we decide that make-believe must stop?
What is their imaginative mind left with?

Children are incredibly able to create magic and see magic in the real world without needing us to feed them some prepackaged magic, myths and fantasy. 
By keeping Christmas a real-life experience, we are giving our children the biggest of gifts, that of trust and of a lifelong imagination.

This doesn't mean that we can't read books about Santa or talk about it at all. We can be mindful about the books that we buy for example, choosing titles that privilege humour over make-believe (the most successful example of this is Father Christmas, by Raymond Briggs).
We don't need many of them, just a few good ones. 

We can read classic stories featuring Santa, using appropriate language: 

Some people like to believe that…
The story of Santa Claus is very old..
The legend says..
Some people call Father Christmas St Nicholas..

Inform yourself beforehand, or choose books that help yourself delve into the origin of the myth, in order to open a honest conversation with your child. It will still be incredibly fascinating, your child will still be daydreaming about faraway lands covered in snow.

There is a great difference between reading stories and putting up a show. 
By doing this we risk to lose our child's trust and spontaneity, as well as to wipe out everything the holiday season is really about, a time to be present and to give, or whatever other moral meaning your family gives to it according to your culture, religion or beliefs.

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