If I could be the one person in the world who could go anywhere in the world in less than one night, knew how deserving every other person is, knew every person’s greatest wish, and had the resources to fulfill those wishes… I think that I would take on that mantle. Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or any of the other names applied around the world to this mythic figure, would be a label I wore with pride.
There are whole books and websites devoted to recounting the historical origins, both documented and apocryphal, on the great giver of gifts — so many that I’ll just point you to Wikipedia to start your research on that topic if you’re so inclined. The one point I will mention that I just learned this year is that Kris Kringle might very well be a corruption of the Germanic name, Christkint or Christkindl — but that refers to Martin Luther’s created response to St. Nicholas as an alternative bringer of gifts for St. Nicholas’ Day or Christ’s Mass. I’ve never read or seen any stories that combine the origins, say with an adult Santa Claus describing how he started his career as a blonde, curly-haired cherub delivering presents from an early age. I might write that one.
Regardless of the fascinating history of the legend, here in the USA, we think of Santa Claus as having a few primary and sometimes several secondary characteristics, that I would like to enumerate so that my readers can understand who I’m referencing: 1) His appearance is red and white with black belt and boots, including white gloves and a red and white tasseled hat. He is fat and white bearded, so probably a bit old. 2) He delivers gifts to people, most often stated as children, anywhere in the world, at some time during the end of the year. 3) He decides which people get gifts or not based on a list wherein he checks to see if they are naughty or nice. 4) He delivers those gifts all in one night by driving around in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Additional, less universally recognized characteristics include: 1) He lives at the north pole, 2) Elves make the toys that he delivers, 3) He is married to Mrs. Santa Claus, 4) He gives coal to undeserving children. 5) There are either 2, 8, or 9 reindeer who pull the sleigh. 6) Outside of the magical things (elves, reindeer, sack of toys) that he possesses, some interpretations bestow magical abilities on Santa himself.
I find a couple of things fascinating about Santa, particularly in comparison to Jesus Christ. The current character of Santa Claus is secularized and is not specifically a component of any religion, though obviously he delivers gifts on the holiday associated with Jesus’ birth. Christians are supposed to believe in Jesus Christ, and according to an ARIS poll in 2001, over 75% of U.S. adults were Christian, down from over 85% a decade earlier. Nobody is required to believe in Santa Claus, and sure enough, an AP-AOL poll from 2006 shows that U.S. children stop believing in him around the age of 8. That same poll indicates that almost 86% of adults did believe in Santa as kids. A very soft conclusion that you can reach from examining both of these polls is that U.S. residents as a whole are believing less and less as time progresses.
I don’t remember believing in Santa as a child, I just remember when I definitely realized there was not a Santa Claus. What I mean by that is that I don’t remember the feeling of belief that I might have had prior to that point. It’s as if that belief fell away into a sort of amnesia of innocence. I’ve grown into an adult who identifies himself as a disbeliever in almost every way. When I say today that I believe in Santa Claus, what I really mean is that I wish that the world were magical enough that he could exist. That’s as close as I can get to belief today. But I don’t believe in magic, and wanting something to be doesn’t make it so. I do, however, think that we human beings have an indomitable perseverance in changing ourselves and our world to be a better place. Every year, around this time, I persist in trying to rebuild the spirit of Santa Claus, because I admire his character.
I am a skeptic by nature and so I recognize the impulse in myself and others to dismiss Santa as an obvious myth because of all his aspects that are impossible. I could break down the amount of time it would take to visit all the houses that he is supposed to visit. I could point out that there is no way that all those gifts could fit in one sleigh. I could argue against his ability to know who is naughty or nice. I could point out that nobody has found his lair at the north pole. It would be easy enough to convince people that elves aren’t real. I could even go after the reindeer and point out how at 160 – 220 lbs, they weigh four to five times as much as the heaviest flying bird, the Bustard of Africa and Eurasia. Poor reindeer.
Through all of those arguments and innumerable more, I could fashion a proof that reduces the components of Santa Claus down to a conclusion of nonexistence. And what would I have accomplished at the end of all that? I’ve already pointed out the polls which imply that nobody believes in him anyway.
None of those polls nor my arguments declare that it is wrong for a person to give gifts to whomever he wishes for whatever reason he wishes. Nothing changes my opinion that a desire to find something magical in the universe can lead us to make amazing discoveries in mundanity along the way. If we never examined the magic that made birds fly and leaves glide, we couldn’t have reasoned the science of aeronautics. If we never sought to explore the heavens, we wouldn’t have begun our exploration of space. If we never tried to take apart the miracle of childbirth, we couldn’t have made the advances in medicine to save the babies we can save today. Every advance in our knowledge today has come from questioning the magic and the science of yesterday.
I’m sorry, Virginia, but I don’t think that there is a real Santa Claus. He is not real today. But what is true today may not be true tomorrow. I have no faith in a magical benevolent Kris Kringle, but I hope for it. Since I think that I, like every other person, am capable of great things, I’ll try to make my own hopes come true. I’ll make some surprises happen, I’ll keep a twinkle in my eye, I’ll try to pull off some magic tricks, and I’ll keep Christmas in my heart. Maybe I’ll convince someone else to do the same. And maybe another person after that. Then who knows what tomorrow will bring?