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“Lane, when it’s just you and me in the room, you don’t have to say ‘Dad?’ You can just start talking.”




“Yes, Laney.”

“I need a box.”

“What do you need a box for?”

“It’s kind of a secret.”

“Oh. Okay, how big does it need to be?”

“Big enough for an elf.”


Not all elves are created equal. I managed to get the elfish proportions nailed down with a few more questions. Whatever she was up to did not involve elves on the scale of Will Ferrell, nor Elrond, nor Dobby, nor even Hermey the Dentist. Holding her hands out in front of her, Delaney (7) indicated an elf closer to pixie size—maybe four inches tall.

“He’ll come to our house if we build a place for him to sleep!” she said, barely able to contain herself.

“Huh. What kind of elf are we talking about?”

“A Santa elf, hello.”

“I didn’t know they came into people’s houses.”

“Well did you ever build a little place for him?”

I admitted I had not.

“Well then of course he never came.”

It was all making perfect sense. I helped her find a box and she spent the evening decorating it, right down to a bed of fabric swatches.

“They like snacks, I have to leave him snacks!”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

“Sheri told me. He visited her house, and he left notes!”

“They can write?”

“Dad! Of course they can write, jeez.” Sometimes my ignorance overwhelms us both. She put a tiny pretzel in the house along with a pen and a pad of Post-Its, then went to bed shivering with excitement.


elf76991“Laney Laney! He came! He came!” It was her sister Erin (10), leaning a little too excitedly over the elf house early the next morning.

“He bit the pretzel! He left a note!”

The evidence was irrefutable. The pretzel had indeed been gnawed, and a Post-It on the wall of the box said TANKS SO MUTCH.

Laney was beside herself with glee. She wolfed breakfast and bolted out the door to compare notes with an equally-excited Sheri at the bus stop.

The Southeast is awash in elf legends this time of year. I wrote about a slightly different tradition last year, one in which stuffed elves come to life in the night and move about doing mischief before ending up in some unlikely spot, as if caught in the act of living.

Erin’s complicity this year is pretty interesting; just last year she went all Mythbusters on Laney’s elfish fantasies:

ERIN: They do not.

DELANEY: They do so.

ERIN: Laney, there’s no way they come alive.

DELANEY: I know they come alive, Erin!

I walked in.

DAD: Morning, burlies!

GIRLS: Hi Daddy.

DAD: What’s the topic?

ERIN: Laney thinks the elves really come alive.

DELANEY, pleadingly: They do! I know it!

ERIN: How do you “know” it, Laney?

DELANEY: Because. I just do.

ERIN: What’s your evidence?

DELANEY: Because it moves!

ERIN: Couldn’t somebody have moved it? Like the Mom or Dad?

DELANEY: But [cousin] Melanie’s elf was up in the chandelier! Moms and Dads can’t reach that high.

ERIN: Oh, but the elf can climb that high?


DELANEY: They fly.

ERIN: Oh jeez, Laney.

DELANEY: Plus all the kids on the bus believe they come alive! And all the kids in my class! (Looks at me, eyebrows raised.) That’s a lot of kids.

This year Erin’s taking genuine delight in Laney’s delight, setting up elaborate proofs of each night’s visitation — proofs further confirmed by Sheri’s daily testimonies.

One morning last week, after the bus pulled away, another good friend and neighbor, mother of a kindergartner, waved me over.

“I have a kind of…unusual question for you,” she said. Given my speciality, it turned out to be an entirely usual question.

“I wondered what you guys think about the whole Santa thing,” she said. “And…well, also these elves. I mean, I know you don’t have religious faith, but I was interested to know what your take is on all that stuff. I sometimes worry that it distracts from the real reason for Christmas. But I don’t know if I’m making too big a deal of it.”

How very lovely to be asked for such an opinion by a Christian friend. I told her that “the whole Santa thing” is a point of contention among many secular humanists as well — a nice symmetrical irony if you ask me — but that I come down firmly on the side of relaxing and letting kids enjoy these things for the limited time they will choose to, in part because it gives them a chance to think their way out.

“We know for a fact that three or four years from now, they won’t still believe in elves, probably not even in Santa Claus,” I said. “They’ll stop believing it as soon as the desire to figure it out is stronger than the desire to believe in it. That’s when they sort the things they no longer believe in from the things they continue to believe. That’s a good thinking exercise. I wouldn’t want to deprive them of that or of the fun they’re having now.”

Some secular folks are especially horrified by the image of the little neighbor girls, each deceived by her own family, running to the bus stop to reinforce each other’s delusions. I can’t roll my eyes fast or high enough at such handwringing. Far worse, I think, are the parents who insist on shielding their kids from all nonsense. Isn’t it better for them to run into a little harmless nonsense right here and now than to grow up in a hermetically-sealed clean room of Truth? Just when and how do we expect them to learn to think their way around the messy real world if we raise them in a nonsense-free zone of their parents’ careful construction?

More on that Wednesday, when I’ll also say a bit about the great time I just had in Austin and update you on my sad little attempt at bridgebuilding.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.