Saturday, November 27, 2004

You Better Watch Out 

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Spent the evening with the family rearranging living room furniture and installing the kiddie tree. After plugging it in and decorating it with her own ornaments, Willow, a bright prodigy at two, piped up:

I have enough toys, Mommy. Santa can bring toys to some other girl instead, okay?

It's tempting to end the blogentry here, all cuteness and light. But the resulting impression of selflessness would be unfair to all of us. For behind Willow's otherwise cute outburst this evening is something much more sinister than her words would imply.

She's terrified of the jolly old elf himself.

I'm not sure where this came from, or when it started. I was first confronted with Willow's fear of Santa a few months ago at the Yankee Candle flagship store, a commercial monstrosity just down the road which celebrates Christmas year-round. Though we left for the candy shop the moment she began screaming, five months later, she won't enter the building for fear of a confrontation.

Though she's curious about the iconography -- chattering up the image on coke cans and store window holiday cards, singing the songs under her breath as she fades from consciousness in her darkened bedroom -- just the thought of meeting the "real" Santa terrifies her into her Mommy's arms. And nothing in her life is as scary. Nothing but actual pain brings on anything approaching the decibel levels.

Those unfortunates sans kiddies may not have experienced the phenom, but it turns out to be fairly common for kids to be afraid of the half-imaginary. Child development naturally involves a long process of separating the fake from the non-fictional, the real from the fairy tale; masked or costumed characters and seasonal icons confront the child with imagery in tension with this developing awareness of real/not real, which in turn brings on everything from short-term stutters to night terrors.

Disneyphiles and halloweenies beware: merely taking off the mask is no substitute. Psychologists say that until the age of six, the fear tends to overwhelm even the most cautious and deliberate attempts to reveal the reality behind the scenes.

Luckily, however, Willow sees nothing wrong with the idea of Santa leaving toys at Grandma's house for a later pick-up. We'll not be leaving milk and cookies out for another couple of years yet, but perhaps it's all for the best when your kid's a Jewnitarian -- I, for one, can certainly accept keeping the magic of Christmas mythos at an arm's length for a while.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:12 PM |

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