A long time ago, my daughter asked me, point-blank, whether or not Santa was real. I believe she was almost four. The previous year, she had noted aloud that Santa used the same wrapping paper as Mommy, and had speculated, “I bet Mommy is Santa Claus.” A few feet away, Daddy, who had worked his butt off paying for the items under the tree, felt somewhat left out, but did not protest. I kept my mouth shut, as she did not ask directly. But now, here it was a year later, and the game was up. To lie in the face of the direct question seemed wrong. So I told her, making it clear that it was perfectly all right and loads of fun to pretend to believe in Santa.
She was disappointed, and for a split second I thought I had made a mistake. But only for a split second. She quickly recovered and had fun with pretending about Santa Claus for several years to come.
In truth, my decision to tell the truth was somewhat selfish. Parents everywhere know how annoying Santa-mania is among the very young believers, how it is stoked by children’s programs and marketers until kids are whipped into a maniacal frenzy. I remember a year when she was 4 or 5, the mom of a friend of hers suggested we take the girls to a storytelling event at the library–billed as being winter-related, but not Christmas-related. This family was Jewish, and the mom was looking for relief from the incessant Santa frenzy. I was looking for relief too, I told her. So, we arrived at the event, only to learn that the storyteller who had been booked had cancelled due to illness. In her place–ta da!–here was another lady who would lead a sing-along of–wait for it–Santa Claus songs! She had the kids in a state of hyper-excitement in moments.
It wasn’t so crazy when I was a kid, at least it didn’t seem as if every adult I met was going out of his or her way to make me hyperactive with thoughts of Santa.
In fact, I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus. I had a couple of problems with the concept. Number one was that our house had no chimney. Number two, most of my schoolmates were Jewish, and it seemed grossly unfair that Santa served only those who celebrated Christmas. Not my sort of universal good spirit at all. Problem number three: there were too many Santas around…one, in fact, at every department store, apparently there simultaneously. And oh yeah, I noticed the wrapping paper, too.
As an adult, however, I have made my peace with St. Nick, and I have Charles Dickens to thank for my pro-Santa spirit.
By the time my daughter turned five, we were attending an annual production of A Christmas Carol at South Coast Repertory theater in Costa Mesa, California. The play, Dickens’ story, offers up a Santa suitable for grown-ups, in the person of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
This role has been played by a variety of actors over the years, but all of them say the same thing. “Look upon me,” the ghost says, “and know me well.”
He is clad in fur-trimmed green, sports a red beard, and holds a bejeweled cup of Christmas cheer. He takes Scrooge on a round of parties–that of the Cratchits and that of his nephew, Fred. The Ghost of Christmas Present mocks Scrooge’s dour demeanor and his meanness of spirit. At the end of Fred’s party (and to close the first act) he promises that wherever people keep Christmas in their hearts, there he will be. In that moment of voices raised in song, he is preaching the absolute morality of generosity of spirit as well as material goods, and of the morality of conviviality, the absolute goodness of fun.
He’s a Santa we all need, whether we suffer from seasonal affective disorder, seasonal social anxiety, gift-giving frenzy, Christmas card guilt, whatever. If our ornaments won’t hang right, if we don’t think we can get through Christmas dinner, or if we’ve heard one too many renditions of “Little Drummer Boy.” (Barump-a-bump-bum is not too far from Bah, humbug!) Looking upon this Santa for grown-ups, it all comes clear. Belief in Christmas is irrelevant. Pretending to believe is enough.
Pretending to believe gives me the strength to do all the work, to not worry too much about money, to not fight for parking spaces, and to trust that somehow, it’ll turn out right in the end. Various bills will come due in January, but for now, we’re having a good time.