If I had a shred of innocence left in me by the summer of 1968, it was all gone by the time Mom gave me “The Talk.” No, not that talk. The one about Santa Claus.
Martin Luther King, Jr was gone and now Bobby Kennedy was dead too, and the world seem to be spinning out of control. I watched Memphis burn on TV and remember seeing the thousands of grieving onlookers who lined the tracks and payed their respects as Kennedy’s funeral train traveled from New York City to Washington, D.C. I was a mere preschooler, but it didn’t take some preternatural sixth sense to tell that most folks thought the world was going to hell in a handbasket.
The men at church seemed especially bothered by it all. They would form a tight circle in the parking lot after services and fidget nervously as they fired up their tobacco of choice and discussed world events. They stood there in their skinny black ties, summer sweat soaking through their white, short-sleeve dress shirts, and talked about the assassinations, war, and perhaps most distressing of all, the protesters and riots. The more they talked, the more agitated they became; the more agitated they became, the more they smoked.
“I always said that man was gonna go and get hisself killed,” one man said, speaking of King. “I guess that makes me a prophet.”
As if all that wasn’t enough, there was the whole matter of first grade, which loomed over me like a radioactive mushroom cloud. It was late June, far too early to be talking about Santa Claus, but maybe Mom wanted to break the news to her baby before some loud-mouth, know-it-all third grader on Bus #18 did.
She poked her head in the living room and stood there for a few moments trying to work up her nerve. I was watching “Petticoat Junction.” Uncle Joe and his nieces, Betty Jo, Bobbie Jo and Billie Jo, were up to their usual antics down at the Shady Rest Hotel in Hooterville. I was far too preoccupied with the idea of petticoats and the question of what exactly those girls were doing down there in that wooden water tank to notice her standing at the door clearing her throat.
Never one to belabor the point, she cut to the chase, changing my life forever. “I have something that I’ve been wanting to talk to you about,” she said, her brow knit and mouth downturned in that way that always meant she was dead serious. “You know how Daddy and I have always told you there was a Santa Claus? Well, there’s not. That was just us putting the presents under the tree.”
I don’t remember if she added something else like “we did it because we love you and we wanted to fire your imagination and engender in you that same spirit of giving” or anything like that. But probably not. Mom loved her tulips and daffodils, but she really didn’t go much for flowery language. She delivered the bad news straight between the eyes, execution style, and then waited for my reply.
To my credit, I didn’t fall to pieces. But I was a bit stunned. I took it all in, and after a few moments, I finally managed to stammer out a reply: “You, you, you’re kidding me, right?”
True, I had already started to question the quantum physics behind delivering Christmas presents to all the millions of little boys and girls in the world (the good ones anyway) in one single night, but the raw truth was enough to put me over the edge for good. I believe that on that day, a skeptic was born. After that, if it was too good to be true, it probably was.
That story came to my mind a couple of nights ago at a Christmas party where the average age of the attendees’ children was about 15 years younger than mine. There was much discussion of Santa Claus: Have you told yours yet? How did you tell them? What did they say? Do you ever threaten them when they’re being bad by telling them that Santa won’t come? (Oh yes, all the time.)
One parent had even conspired with a relative who would pose as Santa Claus’ brother and right hand man (“Roy Claus”) on the phone. Apparently, whenever the child acted up, he was patched through to Roy on the “Naughty or Nice Hotline” who then laid down the Law According to St. Nick. “Works every time,” he said.
Eyegal and I looked at each other wearily. It had been a long time since we had talked about Santa Claus with our children, and to make matters worse, both our backs were hurting from standing up too long. We suddenly felt very old.
When the mixer games started, we had already been there two hours anyway, so we decided to call it a night and head back home to check on Number Three Son, who is now sixteen. He was preparing for his last two final exams of the semester. As it turned out, studying had gone well. The problem was, he had forgotten that he had a short story due for his literary magazine class the next day as well. It was nearly 9:00 PM, and he was starting to get a little sleepy and panic at the same time.
Suddenly it hit me. “I’ve got a great idea for a story,” I exclaimed. “Why don’t you write about the time that you found out there was no Santa Claus!”
He tried not to show it, but I could tell he liked the idea. It was, after all, a good story. He had been about five or so and was roaming the neighborhood with the usual pack of friends on some adventure when he suddenly became separated from his older brothers and was isolated one on one with Chris from across the street. Chris was three years older and much, much wiser. As it would turn out, he would take great delight over the years in regaling Number Three with “the facts of life,” and “truth” about Santa Claus was just the start.
Number Three Son ran straight to his older brothers and told them what happened. They glared at Chris and threatened to beat him up for being so stupid. Then they told Number Three to go talk to his mother.
I wasn’t there to witness it, but I have a feeling that she used a lot more of the flowery language that my Mom had left out. But Number Three’s reaction was a bit different than mine. After listening to a short dissertation on the spirit of Santa Claus and the need for fantasy and imagination to feed and fire our souls, Number Three Son simply looked at Eyegal and said, “I don’t care. I still believe in Santa Claus.”
And to this day, although he is very well aware of “the facts,” he still does. He’s the one most likely to go the extra mile to shop on his own and find that extra special present. He sneaks around and hides them, and although it would be very uncool to make a big deal about it, he takes great delight in surprising his friends and family with something unique and meaningful. And it’s not just Christmas. He does it anytime he travels as well, always tucking a few trinkets and small souvenirs in his bag to pass out when he gets home. When it comes to capturing the spirit of St. Nick and making it real, Number Three is still the biggest kid of all.
As for me, I’ve always struggled to believe in large, impossible things. I’ve overcompensated, I think, by going to great lengths to try to “prove” what I believe to be true. When I was younger, I thought that if I could just accumulate enough “facts” and outthink the opposition, then everything, including my faith in God, would become more real.
But after a few decades of whiffing at life’s curveballs and bashing against some out-of-the-blue brick walls, I’ve discovered that “right thinking” is not enough. It doesn’t water a thirsty soul when it becomes parched from burnout. Sometimes you’ve got to stop defending your faith and simply feed on it, and most importantly, live it. And as you do, it suddenly becomes more real than it ever was. What matters most is “right practice.”
Number Three Son learned that lesson early. And now, later in life, I struggle to become a child again and thereby receive the keys to the kingdom.
There’s hope, though. I’ll never change my hard-wired skepticism, but it’s still not too late for me. Each morning I wake up and choose to have faith in large and impossible things: a friend who make a promise and keeps it, a family that watches out for each other and stays together no matter what, God made flesh and dwelling among us, a politician who puts the public good above personal interest, a doctor for everyone who needs one, dead men rising and UFOs–especially on Christmas Eve.
Each morning I wake up, and I still believe in Santa Claus.