Truths and Traditions

Sharon Nolfi reflects on the reality behind make-believe. 

“Did you get the carrots?” my teenager asked as she helped me unload the shopping. “Didn’t know you wanted any,” I replied. “No, no, Mum, I mean for the Easter Bunny’s snack. We always leave him carrots.”

I’d forgotten our family ritual – baby carrots on a plate, along with a note inviting the visiting rabbit to select a drink from the fridge. We’d rise on Easter morning to find nibbled carrots and an empty soft-drink can. Refreshed, the Easter Bunny always overfilled our baskets with chocolate eggs.

 

truths

Make-believe informed my own childhood and extended beyond holidays. Whenever I was ill for longer than a day, my dad would return from work with a package wrapped in brown paper. He’d stroll into my room, sit down on my bed and ask me to guess what was inside. I would always feign ignorance, even though I was certain the package contained lamb chops, my favourite food for dinner. Dad would ceremoniously withdraw a cling-wrapped tray from the brown paper and, sure enough, it would be lamb chops. No matter how many times this happened, I always pretended to be surprised. My mum would cook the chops and serve them to me in bed. This was the only time she would use biscuit cutters to cut little hearts and stars from white bread.

Dad and I never acknowledged our mutual pretending. His was a gift of fancy as much as food, and I was happy to join in his magic, our innocent deception expressing our love for one another. As a mother, I still dodge facts that might obscure the lovely pleasure of make-believe.

I miss the bubble of whimsy that surrounded our family when the children were small. I won’t question traditions, because, if I do, astonishing aspects of my world might vanish. I refuse to debate the existence of Santa Claus, for example, and I’m not alone in my reluctance. My children still play along with Christmas lore, just as I used to greet my dad with obliging surprise.

Two days before last Christmas, my 10 year old announced he wanted to change his request to Santa. “But is it too late?” Joseph asked me. “Well, probably,” I replied. “After all, Santa needs time to shop for the gifts he doesn’t make himself.” We were both enjoying our game. “Oh! That means you already went shopping. You buy the Christmas presents and Santa doesn’t exist. Santa Claus doesn’t exist!” he teased me triumphantly, but his face gradually tightened and reddened until a tear leaked from each eye. The delight of make-believe was temporarily lost.

We stared at each other, our eyes connected by sadness. I wondered if he wished, as I did, for the Christmas mornings of his early childhood. He’d wake at dawn, scramble just far enough downstairs to see presents under our tree, and scream “He came! He came!” to alert his older sister. Older now, his demeanour relaxed before I could reply to his Santa Claus outburst. He shifted subjects and calmly outlined his new preferences in Christmas presents. I couldn’t tell if he was sheltering me or his own memories. Remembering the lamb chops, I realised he was doing both. Truth here depended on fancy.

Within the world of make-believe, I send and receive important messages. ‘I want it to be as though we lived in a world where I can control outcomes and ensure your happiness,’ I am telling my children. They respond in kind.  ‘We know your need. We’ll help you through this with play and imagination.’

Which reality do my children want? Which do they require? Should I share observable facts or their fantastic subtext? Shopping put away, I opted for the candour of illusion. I returned to the shops, bought carrots and selected lamb chops for dinner.

Illustration by Cheri Scholten

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