I've read some intriguing Santa posts over the weekend, when I could get a minute away from my father, step-mother, and father-in-law. We did Santa in style this year, so it was, well, intriguing to hear from folks on the other end of the spectrum.
I have one vivid Santa memory from my childhood. We celebrated Christmas Eve at my grandparents' house (as all good Norwegian-Americans know, presents are opened on Christmas Eve) and one year, when I was six I think, Santa made an appearance. He knocked on the door, breezed into the living room, said some ho-ho-ho's, and left. Did he bring a present? He must have, but I cannot for the life of me remember it. I've been realizing all week that I don't have clear memories of any of my childhood Christmas presents. I do, however, have vivid memories of the presents I kept requesting, but never received, and of the toys my siblings received that were clearly many degrees nicer than the presents I was given. Make of that what you will.
That Santa existed was not in doubt. He came to Grampa's house, after all. I met him in the flesh. And I was completely enthralled by the entire event.
A few years later, I found the Santa suit and a cheap, flimsy white beard at the bottom of my mom's hope chest in our living room. By then, I knew Santa hadn't visited us, I knew Santa was pretend, but I was still surprised. "Ah ha," I thought, "that's what it was." My eight- or nine-year-old self was surprised that the beard had taken my younger self in. But if there was a devastating moment of loss--over lies or lost innocence or any of the usual Santa demons--I don't remember it. Doesn't mean I didn't feel it, but on the other hand, I came early to my intense enjoyment of nostalgia. It's entirely possible that my first reaction was the one that stays with me: "Wasn't that wonderful, way back then."
As a Christian, I have no problem letting Jesus share the holiday with Santa. Santa gets mentioned once a year, admittedly for a longer and longer stretch of time as the years pass, but he's contained. Jesus is ever-present and ever-important. Santa isn't in the Bible. Jesus is. (As an aside, I have more anxiety about my children building an altar, drenching it in water, and then wondering why their prayers don't bring down fire than about their questions regarding Santa Claus. They simply adore their Beginner's Bibles, and those stories about miraculous deeds worry me--I can barely explain to myself why God doesn't seem to do those things anymore, let alone offer reasons in the language of preschoolers.) Santa brings small presents that fit into stockings, and maybe something small that doesn't fit into a stocking. Jesus brings eternal life, beautiful hymns sung in candlelit churches, and the chance to perform the Christmas story in front of a crowd of adoring adults.
I was raised in the sort of Scandinavian-American household in which lutefisk, lefse, and the Tomten made predictable appearances. I respect that Santa Claus has origins in Saint Nicholas, but in my experience, he's closer in spirit and purpose to the Nordic tomte and nisse, or the Celtic faeries and sprites. I don't have any problem being a Christian and remembering that this is also the season of Yuletide. My ancestors spent thousands of years believing in folk not that different from Santa, and frankly, I'm not prepared to say they were wrong. They saw tomte and trolls in the forest; Elijah called fire down upon water-logged wood. The world used to be a far more magical place, I think.
Besides, I would never, ever, ever use the "Better be good or Santa won't bring presents" line. I find that offensive. Santa gives gifts at Christmas because Christmas is the day God gave us his greatest gift, the gift of Jesus the Christ. Jesus is love, and we show our love in giving. True gifts don't come with strings. That parent who "took away" Christmas by listing his sons' promised presents on eBay? If God had followed that sort of logic, we'd all still be condemned. The entire point of Christmas is that God's love comes through grace, in fulfillment of the Promise, not when we deserve it but precisely because we do not.
Indeed, Santa can be the most gracious giver to children at Christmas, because he doesn't stick around asking for thanks. He doesn't peer intently into your eyes as you open his presents, and then ask if you like the color or not. A week later, when you've dragged your feet about cleaning up the toys, you don't look up at Santa and wonder if you really deserve his largesse. Santa gives secretly, without ties of obligation or expectation. I find that a really wonderful idea. No wonder kids adore Santa Claus, even when their parents do enlist Santa in the language of bribes.
We had three encounters with Santa this year, and two of them were delightful. The mall Santa, accompanied by a woman who asked us to call her "Grandma," was a bit of a lump. Nice beard, authenticly "tasteful" faux-Victorian surroundings, but not worth much of our time. The Grandma thing irritated me. If you're going to be a mall Santa, you should at least preserve the illusion, I think. Mrs. Claus is no one's Grandma that I've heard of. Anyway, we have another Santa photo of the five of us, a crappy digital print with a truly ugly border, me in no makeup because I thought the kids were old enough to do the photo alone, and that's that.
But the other two Santa encounters? Lovely. The first was one of those magic moments: the day before Thanksgiving, we saw a man in a red flannel shirt and red Santa hat, complete with appropriate build and beard, shopping in our grocery store. The kids were not contained in the cart that day, and they stalked this man through the store, giggling uncontrollably and whispering fiercely, "Santa, Mommy, SANTA!" I didn't have the courage to lead my children up to this mysterious stranger--even though I'm sure it's only what he could have expected, you don't go out in that type of garb at the holidays and expect to pass incognito. Still, I'm shy, and I'm always self-conscious about being out with a brood of children who might start whining any minute, so we admired from a distance. We hid behind endcap displays and stared. The children giggled so hard, I thought they were going to break something, and I smiled so broadly at their excitement, my cheeks ached the rest of the afternoon.
The second encounter came at the Santa Train at our local children's museum. The train stopped up in the night-darkened woods near a brightly lit cabin, Santa walked down the train speaking to every child, and he offered innocuous but in-character compliments such as "You were only this high last year when I saw you!" "I can't wait to see you at your house." And the clearly-essential one, "What do you want for Christmas this year?" Because I didn't realize how young children are when they start to read their parents and react accordingly, and my children at least have already started saying things like "What do you want me to ask for, Gramma?" (No kidding, Gemma carted that one out with my mom last weekend, which I call wildy insightful, and pretty much the definitive summing-up of everything my mother is about.) With Santa, you can let your guard down and ask for the flimsy plastic trumpet you are already old enough at almost-four to know your parents think is trash. And your parents, in the guise of Santa Claus, can give it to you.
What will I say when someone asks The Question? Does Santa Claus exist? Well, what do you think? Do you want to talk about Saint Nicholas? About fairy tales and legends, about Beowulf and Thor and the Three Billy Goats Gruff? What about the Tomten? Charles Dickens? Clement Moore? For now, I can be charmed by the girls whispering together on Christmas morning, "Santa brought us three little presents! And one BIG present! And there are candy canes in the stocking!" Elba can pray on December 26th for Santa to get a good night's rest. And Wilder can announce on Christmas morning, "You're Santa Claus, Mommy" and I can get all flustered and say "What makes you think that?" (openly, not accusingly) and Wilder can already have decided it's more interesting to play with his new toys.