Searching for Santa leads inevitably to a joyous heart
Is Santa Claus real? That’s what a kindergarten student asked an Austin teacher recently, and her answer is still roiling discussion boards.
He’s not real, the teacher replied, adding that parents provide Christmas gifts supposedly from Santa.
The story went national, and everyone had an opinion. Many faulted the teacher for heartlessness; others defended her for not lying.
Santa has always generated controversy. Our nation was founded by Puritans who banned the celebration of Christmas as idolatry. Some called Santa Claus the Antichrist.
Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” published in 1823, started turning the tide. His “St. Nicholas” was fat with a white beard, riding a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.
Some Americans pictured Santa Claus as a mitered bishop from Europe, which St. Nicholas was, or an old pioneer in buckskin. The person who most shaped our vision of Santa was political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
In 1863, Nast published his first illustration of Santa Claus, some say at Abraham Lincoln’s request. Supposedly the president felt seeing Santa visiting a Union encampment would boost morale. The Harper’s Weekly picture showed Santa giving socks to soldiers.
Nast created the jolly red-costumed, black-booted fellow we recognize today. Business was not blind to his appeal.
In the 1920s when CocaCola wanted to sell more soft drinks in winter, who better than Santa in its ads? Santa’s costume and Coke’s label were both red and white.
Returning every Christmas, this ad campaign is among the most successful ever, because most of us love Santa. Plop a Santa hat on Darth Vader’s head and you’ll start warming to him.
Driving Burnet Road recently, I saw two Santas. One waved at motorists for a new juice bar. Three blocks away, a life-size gorilla in a Santa suit stood by a store selling vacuum cleaners. These merchants think Santa Claus is good for business.
But is it anyone’s business to tell children Santa isn’t real? As one wag observed, “When kids learn there’s no Santa, their parents get depressed.”
I asked friends if learning Santa isn’t real had been upsetting. Many can’t remember, suggesting they suffered no trauma. My husband, daughter and I fall into this group.
Others tell fascinating tales. Nancy says when she was 5, she forgot to ask Santa for her first doll carriage. When she received one that Christmas, she was sure her beloved Aunt Nonnie, who had just died, told Santa to bring it.
Penny’s family was so poor that she, two brothers and their parents slept in one bedroom on their Iowa farm. Without television or movies telling her she should ask Santa for toys, Penny accepted that gifts came from others, like clothes her Mom made.
“I remember Mom and Dad sneaking downstairs on Christmas Eve,” Penny says, “and somehow I knew they were putting presents under the tree. Not Santa.”
Dr. John Condry of Cornell University interviewed 500 children and reports none was angry at parents for claiming Santa was real. Condry did not interview my friend Jo.
A precocious child, Jo asked her Mom why Santas around town looked different. “They’re Santa’s elves, helping because he’s so busy,” Mom said.
Jo persisted, and Mom kept reassuring her. When Mom finally confessed the truth, “It was like a bomb dropped!” says Jo. “My parents lied to me repeatedly, and the whole world was in on the lie.”
In her teens Jo became an atheist, feeling the same dynamics applied to a supreme being. She raised her children without a belief in Santa.
Eileen remembers one Easter when her Mom said, “The Easter Bunny didn’t bring you these pretty eggs, I made them myself. Know what that means?” Stunned, Eileen shook her head.
“It means that next Easter, you get to decorate the eggs!” Eileen was delighted at this future fun.
In December, Mom said, “Remember the Easter Bunny? Well, Santa is also a storybook character who stands for all the joy and sharing of this wonderful season.” Eileen treasures this memory.
The sublime answer to “Is Santa real?” was penned by veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church in 1897. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” is the most reprinted newspaper editorial in history.
It gently leads Virginia, an 8year-old, to an understanding that Santa is more than a mere man, even a beloved one. Santa Claus is a spirit of love, generosity and joy.
Eileen’s mother found a way to deliver the same message. Perhaps we all can learn from her and Francis Church.
Many parents tell children that shopping mall Santas are Santa’s elves, helping the jolly and busy old fellow.