The Tooth Fairy is Over

The Tooth Fairy is Over

By Kris Woll


Our kids lose teeth, they move forward, they change. But as parents, through it all, we try not to forget.


This week my 7-year-old son lost his eighth baby tooth. They are dropping at an alarming rate. I bought more applesauce and yogurt than usual in case we have to move to a very soft diet; steak and chewy breads are off the table until some of gaps are filled.

My son didn’t even bother to put the tooth under his pillow—he just popped it in the trash. The next morning, he came out of his room in a huff.

“Mom, you forgot to put money under my pillow!”

I calmly walked into his room. I actually had placed a little something under his pillow while he slept, emptying mouth wide open, the night before. (Not like tooth number 5—or was it 6?—when I had to make lame excuse for why the tooth fairy sometimes waits an extra night to deliver the booty.)

I suspected he flopped around at night, shifting his pillows and pushing the money to the floor. I moved the bed away from the wall. “Check back there,” I ordered, and then before he could, asked, “And why did you say that I forgot to put money under your pillow?”

He stared at me seriously, considering his response.

“I meant that the tooth fairy forgot,” he said.

“Hmmm. And what do you think about the tooth fairy?” I asked.

He stared at me again, silent for a while. The ceiling fan swooshed above us.

“Thats she’s you?” he responded.

I paused, preparing to give my answer.

“How did you figure that out?”

“Kids talk,” he replied, grabbing the flashlight he keeps on his nightstand and pointing it into the crevasse between his bed and wall.

So the tooth fairy is over, for my big kid anyway. And I noticed he has quite a lot of hair on his legs lately. And one night, after soccer, he almost ate a whole frozen pizza by himself.  It’s undeniable: He’s growing up. He’s getting bigger.  And this is an amazing thing. The best thing. A gift. I don’t want to hold him back from all—ok, maybe from some, but not much—that he is moving toward.

Still, as I notice that last year’s jeans hem graze his mid-calf, I am reminded: time is passing. Days and weeks and years are going by. He is getting older, so am I, so is everyone we know. The adorable pictures and videos we scroll through and open on the family computer—of babies struggling to crawl and toddlers smashing birthday cake all over their chubby faces and proud first this and that—are artifacts, history. I can snuggle and nuzzle and, when I kiss them goodnight, I can call them my babies, but they aren’t and won’t be that again.

Their long bodies spread out on their beds, and once their feet kicked against my ribs.

I don’t wish they were still kicking my ribs. I don’t wish they were not growing up. I don’t even wish the tooth fairy back into his head. I just don’t want to forget, I’m starting to forget, so I write to remember.

Thanks to his trusty flashlight, my son noticed—amidst the Legos and Pokemon cards and bouncy balls and missing socks beneath that bed—his payment for tooth number 8. It had fallen from under the pillow, just as I suspected. He reached his long, strong (but once so small and chubby—man, did he have rolls as a baby!) arm down and grabbed the money, leaving the toys and socks where they were. He quickly added it to the shark bank on his bookshelf, moving quickly so as not to risk that his knowledge or confession might require a recall of the funds.

And then he promised he wouldn’t tell his little sister what he knew, as long as he could be the one to put the money under her pillow when her first tooth came out, and of course I agreed.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Read more of her work at

Family Mythology

Family Mythology

tooth fairy signed

The first time we forgot to fulfill our tooth fairy duties, I declared that the tooth fairy is really quite old and sometimes she gets too tired to finish her rounds in one night. The disappointed, gap-mouthed child took this in stride, declaring that any fairy old enough to have gathered even his own grandmother’s teeth was surely very old indeed.

The next time we forgot to trade a tooth for money (this became frustratingly habitual), I distracted my tearful, toothless daughter by announcing that the tooth fairy was getting a bit confused in her advanced age, and perhaps she left the money in the wrong place and forgot the tooth? The kids and I went on a treasure hunt, peeking under every cushion in the house while my husband slipped a dollar under a mattress and encouraged our daughter to look there.

After this routine played out several times (I’d guess the tooth fairy had a 50% success rate of actually removing a tooth from under a pillow and replacing it with a dollar), my kids began to lament the tooth fairy tradition, because surely, if she was so confused now, would she even know what teeth were by the time their children lost teeth? Spencer, four at the time, piped up that perhaps he could become the new tooth fairy when he was all grown up! Jacob and Abbie, then 6 and 8, sagely informed Spencer that he was a person, not a fairy, and the only hope for a tooth fairy in the future would be a new fairy, though they applauded his sense of duty to future generations.

Around the same time that our three eldest children were losing many teeth, we were preparing for the arrival of our youngest son. My husband, our kids, and I were walking across the parking lot of a big box store that supplies every possible infant need. I was massively pregnant and wearing the awful yellow t-shirt and navy blue shorts that made me look like a weeble-wobble gone wrong, but were the only things I could bear to wear in the July heat.

“Why are we here?” asked Jacob, our eldest. “This store is so boring! Doesn’t the baby have enough clothes by now?”

My husband waggled his eyebrows, then looked at the children seriously and said, “Oh, we’re not here to shop. This is where they keep the baby spanking machine. You know, in case the baby is naughty.”

The two older kids looked amused and exaggeratedly horrified and Spencer, almost five and not yet adept at recognizing fiction when we tossed it about, looked at me, concerned. I gave him a big wink and said, “Oh, yes, this is where they keep the baby spanking machine now. When you guys were small, we had to drive all the way across town so this is very convenient!”

Less than a week later, our youngest child Carter arrived in the world and the kids were crouched around me on the bed, petting his head. So new! So small! So magic! I settled Spencer cross-legged and laid the baby in his arms and Spencer looked at his face and gazed at the wee, wrinkly fingers and told him, “You’re kind of lucky because we don’t hit in our family. The baby spanking machine isn’t even real.”

In some essential way, we built our family identity on these fabrications, both on the stories themselves and the habits of creating and maintaining them. Some of the stories came pre-installed: hiccups come from the toy box, and if anyone starts eating before the family says grace that person will suffer a stomachache, both of which came from my mother’s side of the family. Most we made up on the fly, sometimes to protect our parental butts as in the case of the tooth fairy, some just because. Some we made sure the kids knew were inventions because they would be scary otherwise (I never actually wanted my kids to think we were going to spank anyone), and some we told quite seriously.

I love the mythologies of childhood, and I wanted them for all the time. For several years, I had all my kids absolutely convinced that UPS delivery people are Santa’s elves, and not only do they deliver the Christmas gifts so Santa doesn’t exhaust himself on Christmas Eve, but they’re out in the world finding out what kinds of things kids would like to have for Christmas. At least two UPS delivery carriers deserve thanks from me for playing along when one of my kids announced their Christmas desires to them.

When I met my husband Brian, my children were four and 6 and his son was 2. Brian was adamant that he would never lie to his son. Noble in theory, but I was aghast. “What about all the magic lies? And the fun ones? And the ones that save them from getting their hearts broken too young?”

Eventually, we agreed, because kids make storytelling so easy, and so often start the stories themselves. When friends lost their baby to SIDS, Spencer was so deeply sad for the parents, he drew pictures and described scenarios in which he flew a spaceship to heaven and brought the baby home to his grieving parents. I listened to my kids spinning wild fabrications for each other, and listened to them go along with those stories because so what if a story is not factual? Strict adherence to facts is not necessarily what makes a story true, and I hope all our mythologies tell some truth of our family.

If you come to our house for dinner, and you accidentally pass a little gas at the table, we’ll remind you to be careful not to step on the ducks. I hope you’ll play along.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Do You Believe in Magic

Do You Believe in Magic

WO Believe in Magic Art(in a young girl’s heart)

By Galit Breen

I sit by the light of the moon, the lamp and the television screen, as my husband sleeps. My knees are drawn to my chest, I lean against them, pen in hand. My eyes are bleary and my alarm will sound all too soon, but this I want to do.

Swirly letters, print that I hope looks nothing like my own, fill the page. Satisfied, I roll the thin paper between my fingertips, walk down the hall in bare feet, and slip the note and one cool coin beneath my daughter’s pillow.

Chloe, my seven-year-old, just lost her first tooth. She’s waited (somewhat) patiently as her classmates have lost one tooth after another, stories of special boxes and tooth fairies and even braces filling their chapters.

My husband, Jason, and I weren’t surprised about her wait time. Chloe got her first tooth at 18 months. It’s just unheard of! Her pediatrician, who I love, kept saying throughout her well check. It’s just unheard of! I reported to my husband while Chloe gummed raspberries and peas and yogurt between us. He nodded in “appreciation” of my worries, threw a She’s fine my way, and passed her tiny, sliced pieces of his meat.

And she was fine. Of course she was. Seven years later when her smile remained whole while her friends’ tooth count dropped by the day, “we” knew how to tow the She’s fine line. But yesterday, when she came home from school, coveted treasure box in hand, gaping smile proud, she looked instantly older and heartachingly proud and I was more than ready to play my tooth fairy roll.

In the morning, she came downstairs with her trademark steps—confident in the way middle children have to be, blazing their own paths between those of their siblings, and quick because she’s used to taking the kinds of steps necessary to keep up with the longer legs she walks beside.

I knew it was her without looking up, but when my eyes met hers—that match mine in shade and intensity and fierce – I saw what I was looking for. They were absolutely lit. She grasped her tooth fairy magic between thankfully still small fingers and held it my way. An offering.

We sat together on the yellow couch, toes tucked beneath us, and read the note, palmed the coin. The sun was just rising and the sky blazed in watercolor shades of red and purple and even a tinge of green. She leaned against me in the way that I love and I breathed in the scent of her hair. Strawberries, childhood.

Her older sister Kayli came downstairs just a few minutes later and sat by my side. “Look, Kay!” Chloe said, giving her a view of the magic she held. Bookended by my two I wondered how this back and forth between sisters would work.

At nine-years-old, I get the feeling that Kayli knows more than she lets on. She keeps many of her thoughts and feelings and opinions tucked into the crevices of her heart, for her eyes only. But every once in awhile she shares a glimpse of that heart; her own offering.

“Look, Kay!” Chloe says again pushing the note and the coin toward her sister. Kayli gets up and makes her way to Chloe’s other side so now Chloe sits in the middle. This feels appropriate. They lean over the note and read it together. Knees and shoulders touching, locks and voices threading in the way that sisters do.

“You have a great tooth fairy,” Kayli announces with authority. A smile plays on my lips as I look up expecting to see their heads still nestled close. But Kayli’s eyes are on mine. They’re impossibly big and brown and where Chloe’s match mine, Kayli’s mirror Jason’s.

I still write tooth fairy notes to Kayli. Its never occurred to me not to sprinkle that kind of magic into her childhood, but for the first time I wonder if she knows, what she thinks, if she’s actually playing into my glitter instead of the other way around.

The morning needs starting, so we do. Breakfast is punctuated by folders that need packing and library books that need finding and a puggle that needs feeding.

The girls are ready and out the door in what feels like just a few minutes, and are home after a full school day in what seems like just a few minutes after that.

Chloe is in a mood. Her lift has always been as high as her fall. As a baby her laugh was always the deepest and most infectious and her cry always the loudest and most intense. Her feelings fill rooms.

So the rest of us try to maneuver around her, biding time, willing her to rest, to take a break, to give us a break. Jason is bringing home take-out and I cross my mothering fingers that she can make it long enough so we can have this treat as a family. But she just can’t—the ups and downs of the day, the late night and the early morning were just too much for her and somewhere between six and seven o’clock she has struck one too many chords and has been sent to bed.

She showers, wraps herself in lotion and fleece and slippers, the same creature comforts I would have chosen for myself. Seeing she’s on her way to okay, I head downstairs to make her a sandwich.  I wonder what my own footsteps sound like to my kids, if they know it’s me without looking up.

As I round the corner into the kitchen, Kayli sits at the counter. Legs crossed, lean body curved, pen in hand. The way that her head is tilted, her almond locks hit the counter. Her eyes are focused, her lips are set. She’s lovely.

“What are you doing?” I ask, running my fingers through her strands that glitter by this evening light.

She looks up, meets my eyes in the jolting way for the second time that day—a smile playing on her lips this time—and pushes her writing toward me.

On a small, thin piece of paper she’s written, “Here’s a sandwich, tomorrow will be a better day. Love, The Peanut Butter and Jelly Fairy” in slanted, curvy, and swirly print that looks an awful lot like my tooth fairy writing. She’s dotted each “i” with a heart. Paused, I look up and take in my girl, note this mark of her tween-ness.

I know this is a turning moment between us and I brace myself for what I think I’m about to feel—sadness, wistfulness, a need to grab onto the fleetingness of it all. But that’s not what happens.

I realize with an inhale that she’s already taken the first steps away from childhood that I’ve been holding my breath for. And with an exhale, I see how beautiful this stage looks on her.

Knowing so much more than she’s let on. Maneuvering between the one being taken care of to the one doing the caring. Using what she knows to show love, to create magic, to be graceful.

“Oh, Kay,” I say, “That was really nice of you.” And not really knowing what else to add, I step aside. Kayli makes her sister a sandwich, calls her downstairs, and, once again, my two share magic while I watch.

So this is the wonder of her tweenness—of being just one step away from the magic of childhood that she still gets and loves and feels the fun and the whimsy and is just looking for her own way to be a part of it.

And as long as I can keep finding these moments to step aside and let her in, neither one of us have lost childhood, instead we’re both tiptoeing into a newfound relationship that is magical in its own right.

Galit Breen is a Minnesota writer. Galit is a contributing writer to Soleil Moon Frye’s Moonfrye, the Huffington Post, SheKnows’s, allParenting, EverydayFamily, and Mamalode Magazine. Galit blogs at These Little Waves and may or may not work for dark chocolate.

See more of Galit Breen’s work in This is Childhood: Book & Journal  – Available Now.

Photo credit: Nicole Spangler Photogrpahy

Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion


doubtWhen my son lost his innocence in the back seat of our beat-up Volvo station wagon, I never dreamed he’d take me down with him. I’m not talking about his virginity–he’s only eight. I’m talking about the Big Guy in the red suit.

“Come on, Mom,” he said one afternoon in the dwindling days of the year, having just observed that everything Santa had brought fit perfectly, was the right color, and had appeared item for item on his wish list, all without benefit of a single flake of snow falling to the ground. “It’s you and Dad, isn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense the other way.”

No, it doesn’t make sense, not by the time you’re in the second grade. I swallowed, met his glance in the rearview mirror, and bravely gave my little speech. Santa was something his father and I did as a present, a little magic at a dark time of the year, a lark, not a lie. After a few more questions (did we actually pay for all that stuff? we went to the store and just bought it all for him and his brother?) and a few bittersweet seconds of silence, he put his hands over his ears and wailed, “Am I going to be able to forget about this by next Christmas?”

It’s hard watching your firstborn reach the Age of Reason.

From there, of course, the clock was ticking on the whole childhood fantasy trip. “Easter Bunny?” he mouthed at me at breakfast a few mornings later when his little brother was distracted dissecting an orange. I made a slashing motion across my throat. “Tooth fairy?” he asked a couple of nights after that as I was shooing him into bed. “Sorry, dude.” Would he still get the money when his teeth fell out, he wanted to know. Yes, he’d still get the money.

“Anything else?” he said, a little sharply, pulling up the covers. I did a quick mental survey of all the unmagical truths he still has to uncover on his own: that his father sneaks cigarettes late at night on the back patio, that the Red Sox might never win the World Series, that there’s very little we can do to keep him truly safe in the world. “No,” I said. “That’s it. I swear.”

That’s not true, though. There is another Big Guy who’s taking the fall in our house these days, the one who wears white robes: God. As I watched my son parry and counter and feint and finally attack the Santa story head-on, I was trying to impose some logic on my own perception of the world, but coming up short every time.

The stories that tripped me up weren’t about elves or reindeer or nighttime circumnavigation of the globe, but news stories, mother stories, stories so unimaginable to me as a parent that they hit the brain and bounced off again, rejected, before burrowing in deep.

Stories like the Bosnian woman forced onto her hands and knees by soldiers and raped repeatedly in front of her children before being burned alive along with them. Stories like the Kurdish mothers, one gassed by Iraqi helicopters along with her family, who all die from the poison; another who watches from the window of an ancient, overcrowded prison as wild dogs tear apart the body of her six-year-old son. The starving Afghani couple, unable to get their extended family across a freezing mountain pass, who finally decide to abandon their young children in favor of their elderly parents.

And that’s not even counting the stateside stories, the planes and the towers, the children abducted or abused or drowned by their own mothers or left to die the most trivial kind of death in a hot car in a beauty-salon parking lot.

Are all these suffering people bad? The Croatians, the Kurds, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Rwandans, the New Yorkers–are they being punished? And the people who live in my town, many of them my friends, with the Land Rovers and the leg waxes, horses in the barn and granite in the kitchen and money in the bank (real money, not the stock-option kind), are they good? Or is it rather that everything that happens to us is just fucking dumb luck?

Where is God in all of this? Truly, for the first time in my life, I can’t say, not for sure.

Call it the Age of Reason, Part II. Just as my son had no choice but to admit, finally, that you can’t make brand-name toys in the vast void of the Arctic and that mammals don’t fly more than fifteen feet at a pop, I can’t stop wondering if God isn’t just a childish response to the staggering random cruelty of the world. Sing along, everyone: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good . . . ” I am afraid I know already how this story ends, in the back seat of a car with your hands over your ears, trying to forget.

Believe me, this is not where I expected to be in the middle of my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a “rowing toward God” kind of girl, to borrow a phrase from the poet Anne Sexton, someone who would naturally grow closer to God in a more intense and personal way as an adult. And certainly motherhood upped the religious ante for me, with its miscarriages and forceps deliveries and those woozy first few hours postpartum, the holiest times of my life, when pain and joy and Percoset and pure gratitude toward the Almighty course in equal cc’s through the veins.

But now? Only the shock of suddenly coming up empty-handed, or maybe more exactly, empty-hearted. It’s lonely with no God to be grateful toward, it’s disheartening to think there might not be justice any more divine than what we get right here and now, and it hurts me to admit that I’m not the best person to be answering my own children’s existential questions, not right now at least.

To be specific: Santa Boy’s little brother, a dreamy, philosophical four-year-old, wants the lowdown on the Higher Power–how does God know we’re being good? Can he see? Does he have eyes? What color? And most urgently, if God loves him, why won’t God pick up his bicycle and drop it down in the library parking lot so he doesn’t have to pedal all that way himself?

On and on it goes, with me thinking guiltily of the parenting books that brightly encourage readers to “State your values!” to their offspring. What if your values are nothing but a big muddy mess at the moment? After a chat session with his mom, my poor kid is left thinking of God as some combination of Mother Nature, Lady Luck, and the Statue of Liberty who watches impassively as we scurry over the face of the Earth like bugs.

This is not good. I leave him for now to the safety of his Episcopal preschool, with its easy-to-take, Jesus-loves-me-that-I-know catechism.

My own catechism is a bit more of a problem. I know I need to read the believers and the doubters and the born-agains and the late converts, sift through Bonhoeffer and Freud and Lewis and Merton and Nietzsche and Pascal and work through all this. And I know I’m not the first person on the planet to have these doubts: Humans have tortured and murdered one another, and people have questioned the existence of God, since the world began.

As my friend Walter (cultural Jew, current atheist, practicing Unitarian, former philosophy professor, father of two) diplomatically puts it, my big spiritual crisis is completely trite by even undergraduate standards. What’s more, he points out, only those who once believed in a personal, intercessionary kind of God can mourn his absence. So I might think about choosing a new religion altogether on the premise that my problem isn’t with God but Christianity and its insistence on a sympathetic, human divinity.

Of course, I could give up religion altogether. History is filled with examples of intelligent, ethical people who lived lives of moral human decency without believing in a greater power. But then I’d have to give up the New Testament stories that I really do love, and I’m not ready for that, any more than my son wants to stop listening for the sound of hoofs on the roof.

The nativity is one hell of a good story, whether you’re a believer or not–the frightened, unwed, pregnant teenager, the angel at the door, the bureaucracy, the poverty, the animals, the shepherds, the star. My sons’ birthdays bookend the Yuletide, so I spent Christmas one year sitting in the pew on a pile of stitches with a tiny newborn in my arms and another, a few years later, being viciously kicked in the ribs by a fully grown nine-month fetus. It’s hard not to feel a little closer to donkey-riding, stable-birthing Mary–the woman or the myth–after you’ve had a few babies yourself.

From there, it’s not a big leap to internalize Mary’s anguish as the grieving mother of a torture victim. And, weirdly, it’s that image that finally offers me some sort of temporary peace as I agonize for the women of the world and all the pain they endure watching their children suffer and die, suffer and die, over and over.

It seems that when it happens, you can go mad, you can kill yourself, or you can try to change the world in your child’s memory. So maybe Mary, always annoyingly painted as the quiet, uncomplaining woman in blue at Jesus’s feet, maybe Mary chose the last option. Maybe Christianity started not with an unbelievable rising from the dead but with a mother’s entirely understandable search for meaning in her son’s murder. Think about it: Mary as the first Million Mom marcher, the prototypical Mother Against Drunk Driving, the godmother of victim’s rights.

So what if religion is nothing more than a way for mothers to insist some good come of their children’s suffering, a way for humanity to pay respect to the fierce human spirits that have gone before us? That’s enough. I don’t know about God, but mother power? That’s one story that still works for me.

Author’s Note: This piece is a complete departure from anything I have published before. Usually I work fast and funny (or try for it, anyway). This one took about eight months of almost continuous rewrites, and I was at least partly miserable the whole time. Curiously, now that it’s done, I feel better, as though God and I had a big fight and cleared the air. Who knows. As Anne Sexton says in the last line of her poem, “This story ends with me still rowing.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2003)

Art by Elizabeth Hannon

The “S” Word

The “S” Word

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel

For years I dreaded the big talk about the “S” word.

Not sex, no siree. Santa. I feared the awful consequences of confessing to my children that I had fabricated a gigantic lie, assisted by almost every other adult in the world, and fed it to them repeatedly over their most impressionable years.

It all started innocently enough. I grew up in a Christmas-loving family. My father is a minister, so the holiday always began with the four Sundays in Advent and gathered momentum through that dark first month of winter until it reached the climax of a candlelit service on Christmas Eve, at the end of which we’d sing “Joy to the World” and push open the double wooden church doors to the magical night. It was always one of my favorite moments of the year.

Truthfully, my father is also a sucker for Christmas in all its mercantile excess. He begins playing Bing Crosby’s and Nat King Cole’s Christmas albums on Thanksgiving Day, and he actually enjoys going to the mall and being bandied about in a crowd of frantic shoppers. Every year when we were kids, we decorated an eight-foot tree full of chatchkas. My mother wove red and green string around the newel post and through the spindles of the stairway banister. She then hung the more than 100 cards we had received as if they were colorful clothes on a line. On Christmas morning, my father made my younger brothers and me wait interminably at the top of those stairs while he set up his movie lights for the same shot, year after year, of us running down in our pajamas to see what Santa had brought. We never spent a lot of money on Christmas, but it was undoubtedly the biggest celebration of the year. So it was only logical that I would want the same for my own children.

My daughters were born in Denver, far from my East Coast hometown. Our ranch house didn’t have a grand staircase to run down, and we didn’t have a bay window for an eight-foot tree. We didn’t even have a fireplace, but Santa found us just the same. It was quite a few years before it occurred to me that I might have Christmased myself into a tight corner. As my daughter Ellie turned seven, I thought of the summer day when, at that same age, I’d visited my father in his study and he’d taken me on his lap and told me the truth—about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, all at once. I’d cried. Even as an adult, I’d never understood why he’d felt compelled to tell me at so young an age. Until I had a seven-year-old of my own.

Seven-year-olds get jokes. They can tell you obscure facts, like the difference between magma and lava that maybe you knew when you were seven but sure as heck don’t remember now. They understand injustice and feel compassion, though they don’t always exercise it with their siblings. They are fully developed people with their own opinions and their own personalities who just need a lot more life experience in order to successfully navigate the world. To dupe such a person with a story no self-respecting thinker would believe had begun to seem downright deceitful. But I didn’t have the heart to do anything about it. Not when Ellie was seven. Instead, I did what many mothers of my generation do in a time of crisis: research.

I began an informal survey into how people had found out the truth about Santa Claus and whether it had permanently scarred them. I asked the college freshmen whom I teach. Some of them smiled and shrugged. One girl said she was fourteen before she found out. One got a faraway look and said, “Yeah. That was pretty shocking.” I thought I might be sick.

Then my childhood friend Dan came to visit. He has three kids, and seven years more parenting experience than I have. So, I asked him, how did breaking the news about Santa Claus go in his house? “We never really started the Santa thing,” he said. “The presents always came from us.” If only I’d had such foresight.

I persisted and asked how he’d found out about Santa Claus. He and his younger brother, when they were six and eight, wondered how Santa Claus fit through the pipe of their wood stove. Budding scientists, they devised a test. They set a trip wire inside the stove. But Dan is also a philosopher, always considering the cosmic consequences of human action, so he told his mother. She, of course, tripped the wire. And, for extra effect, left a single black boot stuck in the stove. This was her fatal error, for Dan’s brother recognized the boot from their basement. As he told me this story, Dan nodded thoughtfully. “I think he was pretty angry with Mom for a while after that,” he said.

Concurrent with my anecdotal research, I got online and read up on the real Santa Claus. I learned that he was Saint Nicholas of Myra, in what is now Turkey. He is remembered for his many acts of generosity and kindness, particularly toward children, but the story that seems to have begun the Santa Claus myth is about a poor family with three daughters whose father could not afford a dowry for them. As each daughter came of age, Nicholas put enough gold for her dowry into a sack and secretly tossed it through her window at night, securing her future. I thought about how to tell this story to Ellie and bought two beautifully illustrated books to help me. I thought about telling her that Santa Claus lives on in all our hearts, yada, yada, except I knew that eight-year-olds—because by now she was eight—have a healthy skepticism of sentimental metaphors.

That Christmas, Ellie was missing both her front teeth. Aside from the obvious song sung that season, I was terrified of the domino effect. If she found out about the Tooth Fairy, well, it was all over with. I thought she was on to us when she decided not to leave one of her teeth for pickup. But on Christmas Eve, she was heartbreakingly worried about getting to bed on time so as not to discourage jolly old Saint Nick from showing up.

It was easy to ignore the whole thing through the rest of the winter, and into the spring and summer. In the fall, Ellie turned nine, and then it was Christmas again. Surely she must have heard about Santa at school by now. I resolved to tell her the truth if she asked. One morning I asked her younger sister Meggie if she was going to be brave enough to sit on Santa’s lap this year, then offhandedly said to Ellie, “Do you still care about visiting Santa?” My hopes that she would casually shrug her shoulders in that too-cool preteen way were dashed when she smiled shyly and ducked her head and said, “Yeah.” And she did. She sat right up there on his lap with the biggest darned smile full of adult teeth.

I continued conducting my totally unscientific survey while my beautifully illustrated books about Santa Claus moldered in the attic. My cousin Linda, at the age of 37, reported she still believed in Santa. “Have you ever seen a million dollars?” she asked. “Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” She had recently become a mother herself and had not yet had the illusion-dashing experience of actually placing the gifts from Santa Claus under the tree herself, so I made a mental note to check back later and see how her faith was holding up.

Then, the following spring, Meggie lost her first tooth, and I had a moment of brilliance. We all helped her tuck the tooth under her pillow. When she was asleep, I crept into Ellie’s room and whispered conspiratorially, “You know the Tooth Fairy is pretend, right?” It was dark, and I couldn’t see whether this was news or not. “Come on,” I said. “You can be the Tooth Fairy tonight.” Together we sneaked into Meggie’s room, and Ellie, frightened and proud, slid the tooth out and the money in. Now, I thought, there’s a long summer for this information to stew. If there’s no Tooth Fairy, then there’s no . . .

Towards the end of the summer, we had the beginning of the other “S” talk. Some of the fifth-grade girls were starting to look pretty womanly, and I figured they were going to be shown some thirty-year-old movie with cartoon birds and bees flying around in it. This conversation went fine, but on Saint Nicholas, we hadn’t made much progress.

Ellie turned ten, and Christmas approached again. I was determined to tell her this time, but my calm friend Maureen, mother of four, talked me down. “They’ll figure it out themselves,” she assured me. (She had found out by snooping in the attic as a kid.) I trust Maureen’s judgment, so I let the holiday pass. Again.

What finally did it was the baby stoplight. Ellie and I were spring cleaning. It was the kind of cleaning where you pull out every dusty little scrap of construction paper and abandoned birthday party favor from under the bed and behind the bookcases. On Ellie’s closet floor, I found the baby stoplight.

The December Ellie was three, when we still lived in Denver and hadn’t yet returned East, she told us all she wanted for Christmas was a baby stoplight. At first we thought this was novel and cute, but over the course of several weeks, her answer to the question “What do you want for Christmas?” never varied. All she really wanted was a baby stoplight. We asked every probing question imaginable to figure out what she had in mind. Was it for her baby dolls, or a real baby? Or was it just a “little” stoplight? Was there one at daycare? Ellie responded with unconcerned silence. Santa would know what she meant.

I was eight months pregnant and in no shape to be taking on secret craft projects on the guest room floor, but finally I resigned myself to the situation and got to work. I poked a dowel up the center of a cylindrical oatmeal container and housed it in a slightly larger box with three holes cut in it. After studying local traffic lights, I even fashioned Dixie cups into little sun shades to glue over the holes in my box. I painted the whole thing black, and on the oatmeal canister, I glued circles in red, yellow, and green at different points so Ellie could turn the dowel to make any one of the colors appear in the correct window. On Christmas morning, there it was, the homemade baby stoplight under the Christmas tree.

“Is that what you meant?” we asked. She nodded her head and turned the dowel knob. Damn, that Santa Claus sure was smart.

Now the baby stoplight had been excavated from the darkest corner of Ellie’s closet. She was ten years old, and I’m not even sure she still knew what it was, but it had made the cross-country journey and survived all this time, though quite a bit worse for the wear. I was moved by the sight of it. I sat on the rug and turned the wobbly dowel.

“I want to tell you the story about this,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. But it might bum you out.” I was in it now. Then I whispered, “Daddy and I are Santa Claus.”

She smiled at me. “I know.”

The kids at school had said stuff, of course. And then there was the website from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (, for those still mired in the Santa predicament) that tracks Santa’s journey around the world every Christmas Eve. As Ellie pointed out, it’s computer animated.

No need to bring out the books, the “Santa was once a real person” stories. She had grown into the knowledge of the myth herself. I wondered whether later she would have a private moment of sad surprise, but if she did, she didn’t show it. She’d already stepped over the threshold into a world in which she knew a thing or two about politics, race, religion, history, and human cruelties and frailties. I was proud of my growing-up kid, who had sat up late on election night to watch the returns and color in a map, just as I had with my dad in 1976. I was proud of the research she’d been doing on pollution and her insistence that our family be more conscious of its environmental impact. I was proud of the conversations she’d had with friends about differences and getting along and of the questions she was asking the world. She knew it was time to leave pretend Santa behind where he belongs, in the world of “little kids.”

But then I got to thinking about something else that had happened during that baby stoplight Christmas in Denver. And I realized that for the past four years I’d been so worried about the falsehood that I’d lost touch with the truth.

Eight months pregnant with Meggie that Christmas, I’d felt a brand new kinship with Mary of Nazareth, who rode pregnant on the back of a donkey across the desert to Bethlehem, while I wasn’t even willing to get on an airplane. I’d sat in church on Christmas Eve singing those deeply familiar carols as my baby rolled inside me. (That line in “Silent Night”? About “how silently the wondrous gift is given”? A guy wrote that.) The memory from that Christmas which stood out most was of the little party that Ellie’s daycare provider threw. All the children and their parents gathered in her finished basement, and then Santa Claus came ho-ho-ing down the stairs. Oh, the astonished looks on the kids’ faces! In his big sack (usually a black garbage bag) he had something special for each of them. On his way out the door that year, Santa saw me standing there—I was hard to miss—and he reached out his white-gloved hand and touched my giant belly. “Good luck, Mama, with your baby,” he said. In that moment all my adult information fell away, and I felt an incredible surge of happiness as I basked in the fact: Santa Claus had blessed my baby.

Chalk it up to hormones or some powerful psychological hangover from childhood, but for me, that moment was enchanted, as real as the moment when, at five years old, I ran into the living room in the glare of my father’s movie lights to see the baby doll I’d dreamed of waiting under the tree. This is a truth I cannot explain to Ellie, or even to myself. It speaks to the power of storytelling and shared secrets and our ability to inhabit places beyond the purported limits of our world. Being a kid is like that, and who better than Santa to help us remember, even as adults, how to get there? Maybe my cousin Linda, the believer, was on to something. Maybe once in a while, if we let him, Saint Nicholas can still toss a gift through our grownup windows.

About the Author: Kathy Leonard Czepiel’s debut novel, A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster, 2012), was named one of the best fiction books of the year by Kirkus Reviews. The recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. Learn more about Kathy at


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