In her essay collection Six Myths of Our Time, cultural critic Marina Warner writes that “you or I…can only perform childlikeness as far as we can observe or recall it. We are doomed to an ironic innocence.” But the realization that childhood beliefs were flawed seldom lessens adults’ affection for bygone days. And that’s where career nostalgia-decoders like “child anthropologist” Cindy Dell Clark come in.
Clark’s Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children’s Myths in Contemporary America informs readers who are not content with superficial kitsch or decades-old mementos. Thoughtful consideration is certainly due the legends and customs that have given rise to the volume’s three subjects—the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. Yet the author undermines her themes’ potential by staking out a linear, nondigressive path. Her strict approach to mythological beings lends Flights of Fancy all the sparkle of an academic dissertation. Considering that Clark’s research includes parents who write notes “in very tiny letters” to impersonate the Tooth Fairy, and young interviewees who willingly pretend to be an Easter Bunny, whimsy wouldn’t be out of place.
Those who recall believing in, and second-guessing, one or more of Clark’s icons have the most to gain from this volume. But they’re going to have to dig for the gems—the nocturnal habits of all three figures; the similarities between imitation Christmas trees and celluloid Easter-basket grass; kids who cry upon meeting Santa but are unafraid of a giant rabbit—that are the rewards of this dense analysis.
Clark focuses on the rite of passage that each member of her trinity represents. She finds that the Tooth Fairy emphasizes physical growth (baby teeth are replaced by adult teeth) and financial solvency (proof of aging generates cash). She cites studies demonstrating that Santa annually re-establishes the family structure, celebrating children with gifts but reminding them of their dependence. Only when she discusses Easter does she contradict her fellow scholars, who see it as a “passive” celebration; the Easter Bunny, she says, which arrives in the spring season and hides eggs for active children to find, heralds a new growing season and encourages independence.
Equating the Tooth Fairy (commonly perceived as female) with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny may be elevating her place in the pantheon; after all, her significance pales once the milk teeth are gone. But, perhaps because of the Tooth Fairy’s secular status, the tooth-loss chapter is at once the briefest and the liveliest portion of Flights of Fancy.
Clark blends childhood anecdotes, cultural findings by “dental folklorists,” and psychology, concluding that even as parents are reassured by kids’ enthusiasm for a magical being, kids view the fairy’s visits as evidence of growing up. The author likens the act of putting a tooth under a pillow to a funeral, and sees the fairy as a sort of grief counselor. There’s a fear component as well, illustrated by one 7-year-old who accidentally washes his tooth down the drain and becomes terrified that he won’t get a replacement unless the Tooth Fairy ritual is enacted. “[Another] boy who completely discounted the Tooth Fairy’s reality regained his faith entirely when he had to have two teeth pulled,” the author reports.
In spite of the universality of “tooth-shedding” customs, however, Clark makes special note of kids who say that “God” gave the Tooth Fairy her job. Most of Flights of Fancy, then, takes its cue from the biblical and defines “contemporary America” as Christian in nature. (No mention at all is made of Halloween, a celebration that would have darkened this most pleasant volume considerably.)
Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are limited by their affiliation with religion—they’re generally unavailable to non-Christians, and even some Christians are uncomfortable with the pagan symbolism of the hare/rabbit (an underworld symbol that complements the egg’s dormant life, suggesting the Resurrection). In Flights of Fancy, one Jehovah’s Witness becomes upset when her sons hug an Easter Bunny impersonator at a mall, and, says Clark, “asked me not to use the word “Easter’ in referring to the Bunny.” But another family—with an Islamic father and Baha’i mother—grudgingly allows their son and daughter to color eggs and display bunny images.
Such “leaps of faith” denote melting-pot America. Yet while Clark stresses the godlike omniscience and immortality of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, she shies away from their crossover religious appeal. She never wonders whether kids who celebrate, say, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah are missing out developmentally because they lack cuddly holiday symbols. Nor does she explore why Americans base rites of passage on toys, candy, and money. She writes only that persistent children can influence parents of varying faiths to celebrate an essentially Christian holiday, then retreats to a marketing point of view, citing professor Ira Zepp’s view that “the American shopping mall has religious dimensions….Paradoxical, sacred meaning lies beneath apparently commercial, materialistic entities.”
Clark’s affection for her subjects cannot be denied, and excerpts from her discussions with true-believing children reveal a bright spirit beneath the stolid prose. But her narrow focus on the Christian religion—and, incidentally, on nuclear families with nurturing mothers and breadwinning fathers—denies many rich aspects of her material. American childhoods today are more complex than Clark allows.