With another Christmas over, I sit staring up at the tree, dreading taking it down in a few days. Especially since it will likely be the last year my oldest believes in Santa. And once one falls off the Polar Express, the other will be sure to follow. But there is one glimmer of hope standing between my family and years of jaded, predictable, cheerless yules.
When my daughter was three, we introduced a new family tradition and welcomed our very own Elf, which we named Jingle Frosty-bottom. Morning after morning through Christmas eve, she would race to find where the mischievous elf was hiding—in the branches of the Christmas tree, at the end of a long trail of candy wrappers, or on the proverbial shelf watching out for naughty behavior. She still jumped out of bed to look for Jingle this year at nine-years-old, despite the fact that our Elf on the Shelf is more kitschy that realistic.
So what would make a kid raised with 3D computer animation think this stuffed bit of felt and plastic that can’t even sit up on its own is real? Hint: it’s the same reason kids and adults alike waited in bookstores until midnight for each new Harry Potter release.
She wants to believe.
Even though our elf looks more fake than a claymation holiday special, the fun she’s having playing along with the yearly tradition overcomes her typical pre-teen cynical response. She knows the elf doesn’t really come to life to report back to Santa at night, but admitting it might cause the parents to end the game. Which means Mr. Frosty-bottom will likely be wrecking Barbie’s car and scattering cheerios in my kitchen for a few more seasons.
But this desire to believe despite the facts isn’t exclusive to children. The phenomenon can be seen amongst adults every year around election day and in the divorce rates. More importantly, it works on readers too. Once someone is sucked into a book, they tend to overlook the odd dragging chapter or minor plot hole. Be it a fully immersive fantasy or steamy romance, if a reader falls in love with the characters they’ll often forgive them for a myriad of sins. Little can convince a someone to read beyond a poor opening by a first time novelist, but once they lose themselves in the world the author has created, their internal critic is left behind.
Don’t believe me? Then how can George R. R. Martin name and describe every single ship in the king’s fleet for pages and Jeaniene Frost’s hero impale the heroine’s friend on a pike for questioning? Then there is Fifty Shades of Grey’s heroine who rolls her eyes on almost every page. Despite their weaknesses, these are best sellers. Readers know their beloved books aren’t perfect, yet they can’t stop burning through pages until each new book in the series becomes a must have.
So as I pack away Jingle Frosty-bottom with the rest of the decorations, I have hope my kids will play along for a few more years. And I’ll be spending a bit more time on ensuring my heroines are likable, my heroes are swoonworthy and my worlds are vivid enough to make readers forgive me for what I’m planning to do in the next chapter.