This year our family’s exploration of the Paschal mystery began with a question from Phoebe, who is four-and-a-half years old. It was a springtime afternoon in Washington, D.C., the trees were blooming prettily, and I was in the process of retrieving her from our parish school a few hours early.

“When,” Phoebe said, as she began pulling on her seatbelt, “are the leopards coming?”

“What leopards?” I asked, taking the strap from her and clicking it into place.

“The magical ones.”

I got behind the wheel, slammed my door, flipped down the rear-view mirror, and smiled at her. “Magical leopards?”

“You know,” she said. “They come for Easter.”

“Gosh.” I started the car and pulled away. “Usually it’s a bunny that comes for Easter. I don’t know about the Easter leopards. What do they do?”

“They can turn the milk green, and the bread. Everywhere in the world. Emma told me.”

There was a pause and then a gleam of light.

“Do you mean leprechauns? That are supposed to come for St. Patrick’s Day?”

“Oh,” Phoebe considered. “Yes.”

“No such thing,” I told her firmly. “It’s an idea people had from Ireland in the olden days. But there are no Easter leprechauns, darling. There is--”

Here, hit by the absurdity of what I was about to say, I swiftly triangulated. Sprinkling around phrases such as “it is apparently the case” and “I’m given to understand” in domestic life can be as helpful as it is in politics. You can create a smooth and misleading impression without actually committing yourself to a known falsehood.

“There is apparently an Easter bunny," I said, "since children get jelly beans and chocolate at Easter, and the bunny is apparently the one who brings them (though I’ve never seen him), but there are no little men with red hair and beards carrying a shillelagh and turning things green.”

“What’s a shalala?“

“Shillelagh. It’s a kind of stick. But leprechauns don’t carry them, because they don’t exist. The leprechauns, I mean, don’t. Shillelaghs do.”

“Do what?” Phoebe asked, puzzled.

“Exist,” I replied, laughing. Yet I was also chagrined by this reminder of the responsibility one has as a parent to translate the manifold peculiarities of the world in such a manner as not to make chumps of one’s children. I hadn’t meant to, but I had just made Phoebe my chump.

The fact is, it’s ridiculously easy to gull small children. They are supremely adaptable and will adjust, at least for a time, to almost any reality you give them. So if you tell them it’s the Tooth Fairy who swoops in at night to exchange a couple of dollars for a molar, they’ll believe you. If you tell them Santa Claus brought those presents in the snowman wrapping paper, they’ll believe you. If you tell them it was the Easter Bunny who so foolishly left chocolate eggs outside overnight to be ripped open and consumed by raccoons, leaving only gaily-colored shards of foil littering the grass, as once happened to us, they’ll believe that, too. Easter leopards, in child’s-eye logic, require no special suspension of disbelief. Why shouldn’t sleek felines prowl the world at Easter, turning things green? It makes as much sense as flying reindeer.

It was at this point, driving along with my daughter in the back seat, that I found myself wondering how, to a person like her, the actual Easter miracle ranks on the believability scale. On Easter Sunday, when families go to Mass having first hunted for colored eggs, do the small children entirely distinguish between Jesus Christ and the Easter Bunny? What’s more, when they eventually find out that the Bunny is a con, will this disbelief affect their view of Him?

All the sugar-coated, semi-secularized holidays now present this sort of dilemma to parents. For most of us, there’s a certain amount of tension between feeling obliged to perpetuate pleasant American traditions (e.g., the Bunny), and wanting to be true to the world as we genuinely understand it, and true to the divine as we believe it to be.

This difficulty is not confined to believers, by the way; it is genuinely catholic in all senses of that word. An atheist friend once explained to me that she permits her children to celebrate Christmas solely for its value as a cultural tradition. “We leave the God business out,” she said, shaking her head, “but still I get questions like, 'What is a prayer?'"

Only the rarest parents are free of this problem. These flinty characters are resolute. They bar the door to leprechauns and Father Christmas and cheap deceptions of all kinds and are generally depicted by filmmakers as the kind of no-fun fundamentalists Kevin Bacon has to rebel against by dancing furiously around in a barn. Personally, I take my Easter bonnet off to these hyper-vigilant types. It’s hard work to fight the culture.

The question for us softies is: Should we? Frankly, I like seeing my children enjoy the thrill of treats under the Christmas tree, and it’s entertaining to watch them experience, as I did when I was small, the guilty satisfaction of biting the ears off a hollow chocolate rabbit. Surely they’ll adjust in time to the fact that these frauds were perpetrated on them for fun. Surely it won’t distort their spiritual formation? Among the atheists--for whom I do not feel much sympathy, I have to say--the fear is: Will religious faith creep into my child’s heart and lodge itself there?

I am musing in this vaguely alarmist manner when, apropos of nothing, Phoebe delivers a message of reassurance.

“I just realized,” she piped up from behind me. “You should listen to your mother and father and your heart and God.”

“Wow, Phoebe. That’s absolutely right.”

“And if your mother and father aren’t there,” she went on, “then you should listen to your heart and God. I just realized.”

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