Deconstructing the legend of Santa Claus
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
My sister Meg, then 6, peered intently up the fireplace chimney. “He could fit,” she thought.
She had just gone and asked The Question of this time of year of our mother, who told her the truth. My mother has always regretted her reply; it was too soon. Meg still wanted to believe.
“I still remember looking up that chimney,” Meg says today. Once she concluded that it was possible for a man of stout girth to descend within it, she told herself, “I don’t care. I’m going to believe anyway,” and she did.
Who wouldn’t want to? The very image is transcendent, noble, grandiose: a Carbondale friend’s son, Hayden, then nearing 2, called it, “Ho ho in sky with elk.” If that’s not cheering, what is?
Last year my nephew Sam, then 7, was here on Christmas, and we all enjoyed sharing the tale of the generous, supernatural stranger, and the routine of leaving out snacks to fortify him. The next morning Sam hurried to the fireplace, and pointed to the empty, crumb-littered plate with the drama of Sherlock Holmes on his biggest case.
“Look!” Sam said, training saucer eyes on each of us. “Gone!”
This year Sam phoned us from the other side of the earth. My sister Lucy, his mother, is teaching in an American school near Dubai. Sam told my son Teddy, 15, meaningfully, if a little bizarrely, “Santa died.”
Teddy asked nervously, “What?”
“I know,” Sam said pointedly. “I know about Santa.” We were all a little cast down. But we knew last year that we were lucky to have one more Christmas with a believer.
I remember when Teddy asked, and even where we were (in the lobby at karate school). He didn’t want to know, either, but my avowals that of course I believed in magic simply didn’t work. Forlorn, he suddenly didn’t want to talk anymore. Luckily I had read that the greatest comfort is often in maintaining the legend for a younger sibling, and my concluding words, spoken into a wan face, were about that.
It is still the loveliest myth I know. I believe this one, and that of a certain large bunny (who thinks these things up?), teach children imagination. And about benevolence, not just from within the home but from without.
Critics, and voices in the backs of our minds, in fairness wonder about deceit and sorrow. Kandi, a woman who used to check out my groceries, said she crept out of bed one Christmas Eve to find an unexpected sight. Her words were: “I was so depressed!”
Children are given, of course, every reason to believe. The words of those they trust. Widespread cultural reinforcement. Crumbs. Presents!
My second son, Roy, 12, maintained his beliefs for what seemed a miraculously long time, perhaps to age 9. When schoolmates blabbed, he thought, “They just don’t know.” Eventually he himself grew suspicious, and when he finally asked for an answer, he was positively triumphant. “I knew it!” he said.
Wikipedia cites a study by Dr. John Condry, Cornell University, who interviewed more than 500 children for a study of the Santa issue, and found that not a single child was angry with the parents over it.
Of course, kids aren’t always as smart as they think. My good friend Jim, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and has always felt he knew more than anyone else, was overheard at about 7 enlightening his younger sister, Marni, on the subject.
“On Christmas Eve something woke me up,” he recalls. “The bedroom door was open and I had a view of the hallway and front door. Damn if I didn’t get a glimpse of a bearded red-suited figure with a sack at the door, heading away from the living room.”
His father, as he would discover in later years, had an “impish” sense of humor. “But this glimpse of Santa really set me back.”
Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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