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The Elf in My Life - and why I need him

For the past week, I have stayed up way past my bedtime so I can create a new mess in my house each night and hide an elf.

Since we bought Elf on the Shelf at a school bookfair earlier this month, it has been my duty to impersonate "Elfis," who supposedly reports back to Santa each night and plays mischievous tricks on children in the household. I've heard that in some homes the elf even leaves a gift or treat each night, but our elf experienced a pay cut and furlough this year, so he just trashes the place and hides.

I have toilet papered the kitchen, dumped my daughter's backpack on the floor, hung her underwear on the Christmas tree, opened umbrellas all over the living room, tied red ribbons on every kitchen cupboard. I have hidden the elf in the freezer, a milkshake maker, the manger and high up on a stereo speaker. Every day is a new challenge to come up with some crazy stunt to blame on Elfis. This is like having to play tooth fairy night after night, which – as every parent knows – is a challenging, awesome responsibility. Sometimes I wake up with a start at 2 a.m., realizing that Elfis has not lived up to his end of the bargain. It's exhausting.

Yet some strong parental instinct propels me out of bed before dawn each day to perpetuate what some would call a great big lie to my children.

Why do we do it? This year, my kids are on the cusp of disbelief. At ages 10 and 9, their little brains (and many of their classmates) are telling them that Santa Claus does not exist. But, in their hearts, I can see them desperately trying to hang on. To believe.

Along with almost every other mom in my kid's class, I agreed to pay $29.95 for the elf this year because I figured he would buy me some time. It seems to have worked. Even though my kids are questioning Santa, they still are excited and mystified by this stuffed, red elf. "How do you think he escapes from the house at night?" my 9-year-old asks. "What do you think he's going to do tonight?"

Are they that gullible and stupid? Are they playing me? Or does some part of them still desperately want to cling to the magic and innocence of childhood?

I read about a study the other day that addresses the myth of Santa as a rite of passage. A psychologist at the University of Montreal examined an 1896 study of 1,500 children, ages 7-13, and the same study repeated in 1979. About 45 percent of the children in both studies gradually found out on their own that Santa does not exist. More than 22 percent in the 1896 study admitted to being disappointed compared with 39 percent in the 1979 study. But only 2 percent and 6 percent, respectively, felt betrayed. The professor found that, when they learn the truth, most children accept the rules of the game and go along with their parents in convincing younger children to believe in Santa.

In both studies, most children put two and two together as they approached the age of reason and solved the mystery on their own. Their parents confirmed their discovery. Those who didn't find out from their parents learned the truth from other children. The study found that most 7-year-olds don't have the cognitive maturity to differentiate between the imaginary world and reality. In other words, their brains won't let them let go of the myth. The study doesn't address what happens after age 7, but I think that most kids suspect and whether they dis-believe or not depends on their parents and how long they're willing to perpetuate The Big Fib.

Me? I'm not ready to let go just yet and I have no qualms about lying to my children. As parents, we use lies all the time to calm and comfort our kids. "No, mama is not going to die anytime soon." "No, you are safe and nothing can harm you tonight." There's a reason you put seedlings in a warm, protected greenhouse to grow instead of the cold, harsh outside world.

I admit that some of this is self-serving. Having kids who don't believe means that I'm that much older and that they don't need me or my make-believe stories as much. For whatever reason, this year, I'm going to keep feeding the Santa myth with Elfis and everything else in my parental power.

There's something comforting, even at my age, about a fat guy in a red suit who dedicates his life to bringing joy all over the world.

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