It was the Christmas of 2013, and my 10-year-old twin sons were having a crisis of faith.
Their elder brother had already settled into a comfortable skepticism about flying reindeer, toy-making elves, and Santa Claus. To their younger sister, the existence of such things was a matter of uncomplicated trust.
But for the first time, the twins were struggling with doubt—doubts they had hand-written into their annual letters to Santa. My son Suren had cautiously broached the subject by coyly asking Santa how fast his sleigh had to travel on Christmas Eve. His brother Vincent, more direct by nature, inquired bluntly: “Do you exist?” But he followed the question immediately (and to me, poignantly) with an assurance that “I believe in you from the bottom of my heart.”
My wife perceived it at once as a delicate family situation, requiring a united front from us as parents. We agreed that the boys deserved an answer. But what kind? We didn’t want to lie to them; but we also didn’t want to treat their youthful trust as a kind of foolishness that they’d outgrown. Belief in Santa is, after all, a species of faith: a most serious matter for us, not to be lightly dismissed.
We agreed that I would write something suitable to their age, yet respectful of their emerging maturity. Seeking inspiration I looked up the Ur-text on the subject: the famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” letter from a century ago. It was as sweet as I remembered it; but I felt that it dealt with faith as a kind of precious delusion that merely made life more tolerable. My own intention, inspired by the Epistle to the Hebrews, was to portray faith as “the evidence of things unseen.”
My initial stab at writing aspired mostly to whimsy. I conceived the letter as being written by one of Santa’s elves, in direct reply to the boys’ questions. I adopted a “corporate” inquiry-answering style, dispersed a few jokes along the way, and addressed the specific question of the sleigh’s flight velocity (calculations on the subject are legion on the Internet).
But as the writing took a more fatherly, pastoral turn—and especially with Christmas itself looming large before me—I could feel my heart crack open as I envisioned my children growing up, leaving behind the things of childhood (as St. Paul would put it) and beginning to take up the things of a later stage of life. The resulting letters were two of the most heartfelt things I’ve ever written.
I printed them on special notepaper I had made, affixed the elvish signatures, and slipped the letters into the boys’ stockings. On Christmas morning, they pulled out the letters right away, opened and read them—but then set them aside to turn their attention to the gifts under the tree. When I interrupted their rummaging to ask what the letters contained, Vincent answered very matter-of-factly: “Just a letter from an elf, answering our questions.”
It was not quite the response I had envisioned. But then, on Christmas morning the evidence of things seen is enough to lay all doubts to rest. Later, in a quiet moment, I collected the letters, rescuing them from the natural fate of Christmas paper, and slipped them back into my sons’ stockings, where the boys (and I) might rediscover them in future years. I found them again this year, and thought I’d share them with other readers.
The Great Workshop of the North
My Dear Suren:
We here at the Great Workshop of the North wish you a very merry Christmas. Your letter with its very interesting question was referred to me. Your question about the speed of Santa’s sleigh is one we receive quite frequently from curious boys of your age.
The most important thing to realize (at least for us elves) is the total amount of time Santa has in which to make his deliveries. You may be interested to know that he actually has 31 hours in which to work—thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth. He travels east to west in order to get the most “night flying” time on December 25.
In that amount of time, Santa visits around 92 million households around the world, where there is at least one good child deserving of a gift. This works out to 822.6 visits per second, and the distance he travels to reach them all is on the order of 75 million miles. This means that Santa’s sleigh would have to move at 650 miles per second, or 3,000 times the speed of sound, to complete his trip.
These are incredible numbers, I know—just imagine how exhausted we all are when it’s over!
But of course, these are merely ways of understanding Santa’s velocity in the physical universe. Christmas is a time when something more, and greater, than physical laws are at work—just as something greater was at work when the infinite God of the heavens became a finite little baby, in the person of Jesus, on that very first Christmas.
When I think of it that way, a speed of 650 miles per second does not seem so impossible. Even so, it is the least of the miracles of Christmas. We here at the G.W.N. hope that as you grow older, Suren, you will turn your attention to those greater miracles of this season—miracles of love and generosity, of peace and hope—which were God’s gift to all mankind. And as you do, Santa will always be your friend, and his kind spirit will live in your heart.
Thank you for your sincere and clever question. It was my pleasure to reply.
The Great Workshop of the North
My Dear Vincent:
We here at the Great Workshop of the North wish you a very merry Christmas. We received your 2013 Christmas letter earlier this month and processed it through our gift-fulfillment department. But it was brought to my attention because you also requested an answer to a deeper question about Santa: specifically, Does he exist?
This is a very common question that we receive every year—generally from boys of about your age. What is not so common is to hear from someone that “I believe in Santa from the bottom of my heart.” I must say that your remark touched us all deeply, and we’re very grateful that you wrote to tell us so. Santa Claus is most powerfully present in our world through his spirit of generosity and love, through his unfailing devotion to the children of the earth and God in His heaven. To believe in such things with all your heart says something very important about the kind of boy you are, and the kind of man you will hopefully become.
Naturally, Santa Claus himself is not like any ordinary person. So the question you ask can’t be answered in an ordinary way. But there are many things in our everyday experience that are out-of-the-ordinary—even invisible—and we can still believe in them. We can’t see the wind, for example; but we feel it, and we see its real effects afterwards.
Some people say the stories about Santa are unusual, or hard to understand. But there are many things in this world that are hard to understand—unbelievable, even—but we still know them to be true.
Some people say that it would require a miracle to do the things Santa does. But miracles large and small are all around you. You know, Vincent, that your own life is a miracle, as are the lives of your loved ones. To be funny about it, 15 weeks ago it seemed like it would take a miracle for your football team, the Eagles, to make it to the playoffs; but they’re almost there now!
My point is that if you reject the things that are invisible and extraordinary, that are hard to believe, or that seem like miracles, then you’ll be missing out on the most important thing about Christmas: namely, that the God who created the universe came into the world as a helpless baby, named Jesus, in a humble little town of Bethlehem. And He did this to show His love for all His children—including you.
Santa will always exist for the children of the world, Vincent, and they are right to believe in him. But as you leave childhood behind—I know you’re not there yet, but some day, God willing, you will be—there will be miracles far greater than Santa waiting for you. Santa is happiest of all when he knows that he has been a stepping stone to that greater faith, in a greater reality.
Thank you for your very heartfelt question. It was a sincere pleasure hearing from you again.
Christopher H. Zakian is the communications director of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.