When I look back on my childhood, I see a seamless unfolding in my understanding of Santa. At first–a person, and later–a spirit, “Santa” always embodied the magic of abundance and possibility and good will.
I have to give credit to my mother. She simply would not entertain any conversation around the “realness” of Santa. It was a given that one “believed” if one wanted presents under the tree. Born on Christmas Day, she was the one to hold the flame of faith in magic and pass it down through her eight children.
When I was 17, I was given the honor of becoming Santa’s helper. My high school sweetheart and I were up till 2 am that Christmas Eve putting together my little sister’s Barbie Dream House–complete with four floors and an elevator.
At 18, I asked for my father’s credit card and spent a day at the mall playing “Santa” for my mother so that she would plenty under the tree too.
As a young adult, the Christmas season delighted me still though the “magic” sometimes waited till after the all the busyness to reveal itself–sometimes in the quiet evenings after Christmas as I lay on the couch steeping in the glow of the evergreen.
Once I was a parent, I could barely fall to sleep on Christmas Eve, and I was the first one up, long before dawn, waiting for my sons to head down to the tree.
My oldest is now 14 and he’s never asked me if Santa was real. I guess that’s because he sees the spirit alive in me. He has, however, began to resist the timeless rituals that have been a part of our holiday season, particularly our nightly reading of our December Treasury book. But once engaged, he seems to let go of his teenage resistance, and as reads the familiar words, “Quaint arabesques in argent, flat and cold,” recited from December 4th’s poem, Frost Work.
As the poem finishes, his younger brother turns to him on the couch and asks,
“Do you believe in Santa?”
There is a collective breath-holding before he responds in typical teen fashion,
But in typical 9 year old fashion, my 9 year old proclaims, “Sure means ‘No”
All eyes turn to my oldest then to see how he’ll navigate the challenge. At first he falters with a lukewarm response.
“Well, kind of,” he says, with a half-hearted laugh.
I want to find some way alert my teenage son to the fragility of the moment, but just in case, I resort a covert threat.
“Lloyd, “I say, “You remember what happened to Alonzo’s big brother in the Little House in the Prairie, don’t you?”
Lloyd remains silent and I continue, more emphatically. “He told his little brother that there wasn’t a Santa–and he didn’t get ANY presents that year because he didn’t believe.”
Lloyd turns then from me to his younger brother and back again, measuring independence from belonging; Then he shakes his head and says earnestly,
“Of course, I believe.”
There is a collective exhale as we turn back to the night’s Christmas reading with greater meaning.
I never feel the necessity of telling my children “the truth” about whether or not Santa is “real.” For me Santa transcends the stories through time and culture.
As my children grow older, I begin, like my mother did, to talk about the enduring qualities of Christmas.
And when all else fails, I turn to the classic, Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus whose text I can not read without tears~
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see…
YES, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty…
The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see…You tear apart a baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest men, nor the strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.
Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view… the supernal beauty and glory beyond.
Is it all real? Ah…in this world there is nothing else real and abiding…
NO SANTA CLAUS! Thank God he lives, and lives forever. A thousand years from now…nay ten times ten thousand years… he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
…And the heart of grownups like us who still believe!