My dear friend Missie, a brilliant performance poet from Victoria (isn’t all poetry performance poetry, in a way?), was in the car with her 6-year-old cousin this week, who turned to her and said: “I don’t think Santa Claus is real. What do you think?”
This was blogged matter-of-factly; this moment comes in the life of every child. Many of the people responding to her took this as a challenge, as if the child’s question was addressed to them, as if we should all know how we would respond in this place.
Children will accept virtually anything. I don’t mean this to imply that they’re gullible. I mean this to imply that their world, their cosmos, their paradigm is malleable. The question of whether or not Santa is real is a pivotal one–an important childhood crossroads–but short of being deliberately horrendous, I don’t think there’s any answer to this question that can scar a child for life. Even a candid “you’re right; he’s not” is an honest answer and walks gently, but not too gently, down a rational road. There’s nothing wrong with this. If a child is old enough to ask, he/she is ready for this answer.
But that doesn’t make it the best answer for a child. And more to the point, I don’t think it’s even the best answer for most of adults…which is doubly sad, because that’s the answer that most adults believe.
My answer to Missie’s question (I was caught in the unspoken imperative to answer the child, too) was actually less for children and more for adults — people who have an easier time grasping complex things, but a harder time accepting and really understanding that the world works in ways we might not expect.
My answer begins here, after Santa Gandalf:
Santa Claus doesn’t exist. He’s a lot like any other dead person in that regard. Dead people don’t exist in the world either. We get the chance to exist for a little while, and that’s pretty wonderful. Maybe Saint Nicholas had his chance to exist too, back in 4th-century Turkey. But after a while, none of us exist anymore–not even Santa.
Except that people still talk about us. Our names are written down in many places, just like Santa’s. Our faces still show up on walls and in old photographs, and in the mind’s eye. “That fat old dude looks like Santa,” we say in the shopping-mall crowds. “Now that pretty girl over there, that’s what your Grandma looked like when she was very young.”
An old photo of us doesn’t make us exist any more than a Christmas Coke ad makes Santa exist. But the people we love remember us. The good works we have done in the world, the gifts we have given others, remain to remind others that we were…we are… entirely real.
“My wife gave me that.” “This? no…this was my son’s dog.”
Ashes scatter in wind like snowflakes. Much of what we leave is recycled or thrown out with the trash. Thrift stores swell with tired old hats, faithful and threadbare, like plaid wool dogs waiting for tired old owners who will not come home.
Some of us, like saints, have the ill fortune to be martyred. Their names are carved in stone on civic properties, graven on bronze plaques. We name our rooms, our schools, our park benches for the dead. Strangers sit on those benches, and seldom wonder whose existence brought rest to their bones. The backs are covered in graffiti and knife-scratches — the calling card of ill-parented teenagers who feel their existence keenly but can only dream of being real, who know better than any of us the difference between those two things.
Santa Claus brings presents to our children. He lives in our songs, and our stories, and when the old Rankin/Bass Rudolph special comes on TV every year, even our youngest children don’t have to ask who that man is. In Italy and Turkey, mothers with very sick children still talk to him, still ask that he might care for their children and watch over them, as he has always done. And no quotation in history, no sound-bite from any politician or corporate slogan, is half so well-known as the wordless sound of his laugh.
There is no Santa Claus. He doesn’t exist. Maybe he never has. But when the grass grows over all that’s left of me, I’d be proud to be a tenth as real as he is. I’d be proud to be a tenth that real now.
Santa Claus is real. He always will be. Whether or not he exists has nothing to do with it.
Happy holidays, everyone.