Growing Up In
By Marien Helz
I always thought
of Santa Claus as a cultural figure rather than a religious one.
He's associated with fun and joy and, of course, getting
presents. Believing that someone could come down a chimney just
to give you something, and want to give you something just
because you exist, was a source of wonder.
My father always
said that he had never wanted to lie to us, so he didn’t want to
lie and tell us that there was a Santa Claus. He was clearly
ambivalent about it, however, because he never made any effort
to ensure that no one else told us the Santa stories. Naturally,
we always got some presents that my mother signed as being from
Santa Claus. In addition, on one Christmas he challenged us to
try to prove that Santa Clause was real. He had us put a bench
by the chimney with a towel and water as well as cookies and
milk on it. In the morning, the food was gone, and the towel was
black—he had rubbed the towel along the pipes in the basement to
make it look really black as though from the chimney.
When we were
adults, my sister, who became a psychiatrist, talked about her
colleagues speculating that not letting children believe in
Santa Claus was depriving them of having a fantasy life. She and
I both felt, however, that Santa Claus was not the children’s
fantasy—it was a myth told to them as though it were real. With
my own children, I didn't want to tell them all about something
that I would have to later tell them didn’t exist. I decided to
get around that by saying to my daughter at her first cognizant
Christmas when she was twenty-two months old that we like to
pretend that Santa Claus comes down the chimney and brings
presents and rides through the sky with eight reindeer. Even
though she wouldn’t know what pretend meant, I felt that
I could let Mr. Rogers and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood take
care of that.
A year or so
later, she mentioned Santa Claus, and I asked her how Santa
Claus got into the house—down the chimney? I queried. Through
the door, she informed me. I advised her that the door was
always locked at night, so that might be difficult. She didn’t
want to talk about it.
I forgot to be as
careful about the Tooth Fairy as I had about Santa, though. A
friend of hers had gotten a note written by the Tooth Fairy as
well as a few coins when she lost her first tooth, and, charmed
by the idea, I put notes from the Tooth Fairy under my
daughter’s pillow with coins as she lost her teeth. She was
talking about the Tooth Fairy one day, and I got a little
concerned. I asked her if the Tooth Fairy were real or if she
were like Santa Claus—someone we like to make believe exists.
She didn’t want to talk about it.
When I was growing
up in Gaithersburg, Santa Claus appeared one night every year at
our church and gave each child a box of hard candy and an
orange. I remember the exact moment and the exact place when I
found out that he wasn’t real. I was in the first or second
grade when my mother and several other women from the church
were in our dining room cutting out fabric and sewing it. My
brother asked her what they were doing. When she told us that
they were making a suit for Santa Claus, my brother asked why
his wife couldn’t make it for him. Then she told us.
Rather than being
a let-down at that moment, it was intriguing and neat—we had
been let in on an adult secret. It was a discovery.
From that time on,
none-the-less, some of the magic was lost from Christmas. It was
never the same after Santa Claus left the land.
There were still
the colored lights swaying back and forth in the wind on
Frederick Avenue at the end of our street. There were the dark
days with violet light and snow flakes occasionally sifting
though green boughs, and all that gave a hint of the mysteries
in the universe. The loss of the idea of Santa Claus, however,
took away some of the glory. Teaching children about Santa can
seem to concentrate too much on their receiving gifts and less
on charity—yet that isn’t what tends to happen. The myth of
Santa Claus is about someone who gives to children just for the
delight of giving all children presents. It’s about the spirit
of joy and acceptance, and about a night when every child is
special, and there is some magic person who wants every child in
the world to have presents just because every child is the child
who is most precious. That aspect of the symbol of Santa Claus
is what must be kept real forever.
Monthly December © 2006
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