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More questions than answers for Christmas’ curious kids

SALLY FRASER finds it difficult to explain to her children the magic of Santa and the mystery of God —By SALLY FRASER

Parenting is, of course, always full of difficult questions. My children have progressed over the years from the dull and repeated ‘what’s the difference between a caravan and a campervan?’ to the abstract ‘what’s the opposite of a shark?’ to the highly topical ‘is Mr Mugabe nicer or meaner than Mr Trump?’

But the festive season tends to take the tough questions to another level.

Like most mothers who have a Faith, I have grappled with the perennial woe of wanting my children to believe what I tell them about God and Jesus, while having merrily told them a pack of lies about Santa Claus for years.

The whole situation made me uncomfortable for years, so that, rather than wanting to preserve my little one’s awe and wonder, I was keen to let the cat out of the bag at the earliest opportunity. But, when faced with my daughter’s enormous eyes full of hope, in the end the conversation went something like this:

“Is Santa real?”

“Well, not really. He is sort of magic”.

“Like God?”

“No. God is more real than that.”

Magic. Tricky in itself in the Church. One of our RCIA candidates was asking about magic the other day. She said it’s not OK to talk about magic in the Church, but it is magical. And it is, I thought—it might not be OK to talk about it but I do think it. If I am choosing hymns or singing, especially at this time of year, the thought I often have is: it needs to be magical.

But our candidate was told quite firmly, no, here we have mystery and miracle, but not magic. Even though it was a grown woman and not a child, I didn’t really like feeling that some kind of innocence was being crushed.

I was taking children’s liturgy the other Sunday and I realised I had waded into another tricky set of discussions

The Gospel was ‘whatsoever you do’ and I had hit upon the idea of a giant advent calendar with pictures on the front of various people who might cry out in need, with a picture of Jesus behind each door (which is, as our church pianist pointed out, a metaphor for so much—what is life if not a giant advent calendar with Jesus behind each door?).

The first picture was a little boy looking sad on his own. It was incredible just how easily these children could empathise; read his body language, his face, the situation.

“What could we do to be kind to him?” I asked. One little girl said we could play with him, we could give him a cuddle, and I nearly cried.

They were the same for a lonely looking older lady and a stressed-out looking dad. They had no less sympathy and thoughtfulness for the hopeless people or refugees in some of the other pictures, but suddenly I realised our ‘how can we be kind to them?’ question wasn’t really going to work.

What could I teach a bunch of four-year-olds to do to help refugees or homeless people? Lobby their MPs? I couldn’t get them to make their parents give away all their money, and I figured I would have some fairly cross mums and dads on my hands if their little ones started giving out cuddles on the street to the poor, the downcast and the lonely. I had been rendered speechless by my own giant advent calendar.

There was one question last year however that, perhaps above all others, had me completely lost for words. My six-year-old, after a big bout of carol singing, asked: “What’s a virgin?” Loudly, and on the number 16 bus, no less. Now, I am all for open and honest sex education for children, but ideally, not on public transport.

And my first thought was, there is a lot I would have to get through first before I got to that bit, and now is not really the time.

I muttered something about someone who hasn’t had a boyfriend or girlfriend, but I was aware this was a rubbish answer and could cause all sorts of problems later. I imagined every babysitter over the next few weeks being quizzed about their virginity.

So, not a great parenting moment from me, but I got myself out of the woods short-term. But of course, an awful lot of the Christmas story doesn’t really make sense without answering this question properly—we are missing most of the good stuff if we leave out the Immaculate Conception.

Joseph is probably Jesus’ daddy if we don’t know how babies are made; the Angel Gabriel is just man with a cardboard halo if his message isn’t particularly terrifying.

Mary isn’t quite so amazing if we don’t know that she was scared, that she could have been stoned to death for adultery, that she would have lost her husband for being pregnant, but that she still said yes to what God wanted for her.

And maybe even those of us who know our birds from our bees might be guilty of missing the point a bit, of giving ourselves a bit of a nativity version of Christmas rather than facing the gritty reality of what Mary faced. And the wonderous miracle, that great subversive act. That all those years after we bit that apple, one of our own would be chosen to incubate, to birth, to nurse. That all was forgiven, just like it always is.

I hope I can find a way of explaining this to my children so that they don’t have to wait until adulthood, like I did, to understand that. I hope we can all remember it among the shepherd costumes and the cardboard halos.

So, I wish you a magical Christmas, with just the right amount of mystery. And wonder.

Let there always be wonder. Let there always be questions that can’t be answered, for all of us.


– Sally Fraser is a pastoral associate at St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Leith, Edinburgh. She converted to Catholicism in her 20s and is married with two small children.

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