What is it about Christmas that gets children so excited? Their excitement bypasses normal levels and reaches new snow-covered peaks. But what triggers it? Is it looking forward to the feast dinner? The time off school? Meeting their extended families, and feeling that increased sense of belonging? There is so much to look forward to, from presents to the hope of snow. But I’ve been watching my own children’s eyes, and there’s no doubt about it; the thing that makes them twinkle, brighter than the fairy lights on the tree, is the thought of magic.
It’s impossible to ignore magic at this time of year. There are songs of magic on the radio, stories of magic in seasonal children’s books, films of magic on re-run. If you know any children, there are endless conversations about Santa and all the magic he entails. The nativity story they learn and re-enact in school feels like magic, with stars that send messages, flying angels and a baby King born miraculously in a stable. Even if you’re an old Scrooge, you can’t escape being touched by a little bit of magic (or a lot if you’re the real-life Scrooge) at Christmas.
All this got me thinking, how can we spread magic throughout the year, so that it’s not just a Christmas phenomenon? Children crave magic all year round, with fairy doors in most houses in Ireland, fairy walks and wishing wells recently added to garden centres and parks to attract in more families. But I believe that the best way to engross a child in magic, is through stories. Books.
Not only is magic in books exciting, but it allows children to see the world with fresh eyes. It draws them out of the mundane, it makes the impossible possible, and turns ordinary children into extraordinary heroes.
I have such strong memories of reading books with magic as a child, and I can still feel the tug of sorrow in my chest when those books ended. The Faraway Tree by Enid Blighton is the earliest one I remember, read to me by a kind teacher. I remember how the real world and all its problems disappeared around me, because all that mattered was that story, and finding out how the children would navigate the dangers of the enchanted tree. That was followed by Charlotte’s Web, where an ordinary spider saved a pig’s life, through a tiny touch of magic. It changed the way I looked at animals, and I realised that even the smallest of characters can make the biggest difference. Naturally there was Harry Potter, and I cried and cried when it ended, because I couldn’t bear the thought of that wonderful world of magic being over. When I found out there was a second book being written, well, let’s just say, using the apt cliché, that Christmas came early that year.
Magic in books teaches children that anyone can be a hero. In general, the characters in fantasy books don’t just rely on magic, they also need to look inside and find their individual strengths. They have to grab their bravery by the golden horns and pull it out, kicking and screaming, until they’re ready to face the bad guys. They discover that love is a good enough reason to put aside your fears and take a leap of faith. Children discover that you don’t have to be born a prince or princess to be strong enough to tackle monsters.
Magic in stories introduces feelings and experiences in a less threatening way than real life. Problems are less scary when they occur in a world a few degrees North of reality. When children are in danger in a world of magic, the reader can relate to them and experience the emotional journey, but from the safe distance of the real world.
Children, like adults, need to escape reality sometimes. Grown ups often think that life is easy for children, but I don’t believe it is. There are challenges, tests, fall outs with friends, unexpected real life disasters that can’t be avoided. It is when we are children that we first taste failure, discrimination, social awkwardness, pain, unpredictability. These are all important lessons for a child, they need to learn that life isn’t all plain sailing, in order to become resilient, confident adults. But that doesn’t make it easy, and if a little bit of magic can soften the blows, then I’m all for it.
But more important than learning life lessons, magic stories are joyful, fun, exciting and they make children smile. If that isn’t the best gift ever, then I don’t know what is.