According to the cartoons on TV, Santa Claus lived at the North Pole where he and a band of midgets made all the presents, which he then delivered in one night on a flying sled, coming down the chimney of every house in the world.
Even as a child, this sounded a bit far-fetched to me.
But sure enough, come Christmas morning, the presents were there, and Santa brought be a brand new train set.
The evidence seemed to confirm the story, but I remained unconvinced.
First of all, we did not have a chimney. We lived on the lower floor of a three-story apartment building and our heat came from a distant furnace through a little vent in the wall.
I was willing to go along with the flying reindeer, but I could not see how a big fat guy in a red suit could squeeze through a little vent.
Secondly, these presents from Santa Claus were wrapped in the same paper as the presents from my parents.
That seemed like more than a coincidence to me.
And so as a five-year-old I was confronted with a painful dilemma. My parents were lying to me, so were the storybooks, and the guy at the mall taking photos with kids on his lap was a big fat phony.
And yet I was benefitting from this charade.
But if I said that I didn’t believe it, or accused my parents of telling a fib, would I have to give my train set back?
That would be unbearable.
I loved that train set, so what did it matter if it came from Santa of from my parents? It was mine now, that’s what mattered.
And so I set myself to living a lie.
The next Christmas I lined up with the other stooges to sit on the mall Santa’s lap. I whispered into his ear what I wanted him to bring me, and with appropriate optimism I let my parents know what I had told him.
The one thing I could not understand was “why” we were all playing this game.
Surely the guy with the phony beard knew it was not real, surely my parents knew it was not real, just as I did.
A lot of kids seemed to believe it was real, and their excitement seemed to provide some kind of entertainment to the adults.
It wasn’t just my parents, it was a massive conspiracy, involving 1000s of pretend Santa Clauses, cartoon artists, school teachers, movies, even the news was reporting on Santa’s whereabouts on Christmas Eve.
It was like the world’s biggest practical joke.
The emperor had no clothes, and Santa had no sleigh.
I resented that all these people had conspired to fool me, but I liked the extra presents more, so remained silent.
A few years later, my little brother was old enough to be spoon fed this lie. We were in the parking lot of Londonderry Mall, when my parents asked him if he wanted to see Santa Claus.
He didn’t know what Santa Claus was, so they explained the whole thing to him: flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, cookies on the table, and of course presents.
He was getting very excited, but something in me snapped.
I just couldn’t stand them lying to my little brother, I couldn’t stand it so I blurted out, “Don’t believe that, it’s all phony, there is no Santa Claus.”
My parents seemed surprised that I would say such a thing, as if they could not believe that I didn’t believe. And then softened slightly, inviting me to be “in” on the prank.
I wanted no part of it. So resigned myself back to silence. Secretly hoping that I would still get extra presents.
Throughout the rest of my life I’ve always been wary of ‘stories,’ that are sold as reality with the flimsiest evidence.
There are many of them.
And I’ve always wondered what role the Santa Claus story plays in society.
For parents, it’s just a fun game, but a game so common has to have some kind of broader effect.
What is the lesson of the game?
Behave yourself and you will get a prize.
Obedience + Magical Thinking = Pleasure.
In most families, the obedience or ‘good behavior” is not even enforced or measured. Merely the pretense of behavior, or going along with it is enough.
The weaving of the fabric of society begins with the expectations of the young, and for many Santa is among the first threads.
Many adults today believe they are ‘entitled’ to all manner of things, while many others believe this feeling of entitlement is mistaken.
But where did the feeling come from? Where did it begin?
Is there a Santa Claus or not?
As I wrote this I was sitting in the aisle seat of row 29 of a full flight to Denver. When the plane arrived at the gate, the woman in the center seat, asked if I could stand up so she could get out, as she had a connecting flight.
I had a connecting flight too.
But looking at the 28 rows of people ahead of us, all standing, blocking the aisle, I could see that getting off the plane any quicker was impossible, at least without a flying sleigh.
I asked her, “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”
She looked at me like I was insane.