Search­ing for Santa leads in­evitably to a joy­ous heart

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Har­row is an Austin res­i­dent.

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.

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