I’ve never understood all the fuss about Santa Claus. Not the believing part: We have no problems in that department, being a happily credulous lot at our house. Two of us, after all, are under the age of six, and the rest of us read fiction without stopping every other sentence to say to ourselves, “But of course this is a lie.”
Actually, with regard to Santa Claus, it’s the worries about lying that I don’t understand, and the need to establish some moment of revelation, like a birds-and-bees talk, wherein a child learns that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
My niece learned the truth at eight, which seemed awfully young to me at the time. It’s been some years now, and I’m not sure how my sister-in-law went about engineering this epiphany for her daughter, but her rationale was that she had learned at eight, and so her daughter would, too. A friend of mine told her eight-year-old daughter about both Santa Claus and sex, if not in the same conversation, at least in the same year. Hello, third grade; goodbye, childhood. Again, it was what her mother had done before her.
I’ve been thinking about Santa lately, not only for the obvious reasons — “Oh, when is he coming?” my four-year-old asked on rising this morning — but also because “doing” or “not doing” Santa is making its seasonal rounds as a topic of conversation, here, for example, and here.
Also, my 10-year-old son has lately been trying to work out a theology of Santa Claus that he can live with, taking the reasoning-from-Saint-Nicholas approach. “Okay,” he said to me the other day, “I get that he doesn’t have reindeer, because there are no reindeer in Turkey. And he was a bishop, so there’s no Mrs. Claus. This whole fat-guy-down-the-chimney thing — it’s basically — ”
He stopped. I waited. Better a listener than a lecturer be.
“And I know you and Dad painted my model aerodrome when I was five. So — so —” He hesitated again. “I know Saint Nicholas was real —”
“Well,” I began. Better a lecturer be, sometimes. “Think about it this way. We say God fills the hungry with good things, right? But who goes down to deliver Meals on Wheels?”
“Grammy,” he said.
“So there’s no God? It’s just your Grammy doing what everybody says God does?”
“No,” he said. Duh.
“Well, then,” I said, as if I had proven something. And I left him to think about it.
It occurs to me that maybe we’ve been doing our children a grave misservice, leading them on this way, exhorting them to pay no attention to the Mom and Dad behind the curtain, avoiding the moment of speaking plainly, not using any figure. But then, without the figure, it’s harder to get around to talking about the truth. You can see the figure as obfuscation, or you can see it as icon, a window onto something which can’t itself be framed by the human mind. In the case of Santa Claus, I like to think of Father Christmas, as he appears in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: a harbinger of the end of the long, cruel winter, a sign of Aslan’s coming.
The saints live with God, we tell our children, and they live to point to God. There’s a certain convenient logic in moving from All Saints into Advent and Christmas: it’s useful to have been talking so recently about the Communion of Saints and the fact that we, too, the faithful, belong to that company.
“So —” The 10-year-old waylaid me again. “Saint Nicholas. I know he’s real. But —”
“Look, son,” I said — I was doing my fourteen-gazillionth load of laundry that day, and tired of philosophizing. “He has many servants, all right?”
It’s true. He does. He has many servants. Santa Claus, Mom and Dad — we’re a conspiracy, all right. And all of us, great and small, wait with joy for His coming.