Santa Claus: The Making of a Symbol
Do you recall your earliest memory of Santa Claus? I recall my father carrying me past the living room, where the Christmas tree and presents were on display. I recall spotting a wooden horse and I cried out HORSEY..HORSEY....Years later, I recall my mother taking me into a department store and I sat on Santa Claus' lap. Later, my mother asked me if I talked to Santa Claus and what he had to say. I said, "I want to see the real Santa Claus. That one has dirty fingernails and he needs to take a bath." On the way to another department store, we spotted two more Santas. I thought that there was truly a real Santa Clause but that all the ones in the stores were imposters. And I wanted to meet the real Santa Claus.
A year later I began to wonder how Santa got into our home. You see, we did not have a chimney. And how could he and his reindeer visit all the homes throughout the entire world in a matter of hours. I did not know then how fast light travels, but I could only conclude that whatever the speed of light, Santa Claus was faster. This was a question that haunted me every Christmas season...very much like the question of how old is Santa Claus? Has he always been there since the first Christmas? Will he continue forever? And what was forever? I imagined a spool of thread that I unwound, but I would never get to the end...there was no end. So I went on through the years trying to fathom these questions about time and the universe.
Santa Claus in Our Attic
Sometime, over the next few years, I crawled up the ladder leading to our attic. I can't remember why I wanted to go into the attic, but something told me there was a surprise waiting for me. What I discovered was the very presents I had told my mom that I wanted Santa Claus to bring me. So was mom Santa Claus? Was Dad Santa Claus? I decided to hold my tongue. I would have more evidence one way or another on Christmas day. What presents would show up? Well, Christmas day came and Santa Clause had brought me the exact presents that were in the attic. Well, I had to rule out these being duplicates for some other purpose, so I waited until I was alone in the house and made another trip to the attic. I found that the presents were gone, but in the box, I found more confirmation of my new found belief. In the box which originally contained the gifts was a sales receipt from one of the very department stores we had visited early in the Christmas season.
I did not feel deceived, nor lied to. I caught the game in mid air and it was an illumination rather than a disappointment. I thought of all the Christmases of the past and what I was brought: an erector set, a Gilbert's Chemistry set and dolls: replicas of the Seven Dwarves and Snow White. And I felt honored and loved. I speculated on how much my parents had had to sacrifice to give me gifts on Christmas. But if my parents had brought the gifts, then who was Santa Claus and why did he persist in the minds of adults as well as children? My answer was then and is today...that Santa Claus is the spirit of love that manifests in a myriad of ways from Storytelling and History...the story of Saint Nicholas, to the Christmas Carol where we visit the conversion of Scrooge. It is the season that brings out the best in all of us.
Asking the question of 'should parents tell their children that Santa Claus is not real' is presenting the child with a false dichotomy: believe in the reality of Santa Claus or Do not believe in the reality of Santa Claus. First off, the child will figure out the myth on their own. Secondly, because a story is a myth makes it no less real. Myth is a powerful cohesive force that transmits a society's sacred beliefs. Sant Claus is a symbol brought to life and reenergized every Christmas season. Hopefully, the love Santa engenders lasts throughout the year. Potentially, this can be the case for most of the people on earth. The transmutation of the meaning of Santa Claus begins at an early age and takes on different forms at different stages of a child's development. Through the process of discovery and the dawning of logical analysis, the child sorts out the message in his/her own way. For those who connect Santa Claus with Christmas and Christmas with Christianity, the story of Santa Claus takes on a more universal meaning. The core values of Christianity can be extended outward to include Hannakah and to the humanistic value of "Good Will Toward all..."
It is not necessary to come down hard on the question of whether or not Santa Claus is real. The child will figure out his/her own interpretation of the Santa Claus story. During the Christmas season, it is virtually impossible to keep children from seeing and hearing about Santa Claus on the TV on the radio, in the theatre, on the street corner, in the malls, from friends and family. It is as though children are immersed in a soup with Santa Clause stories washing over them. They will interpret their influences no matter what. If you tell them only the literal story , you will perhaps deprive children of developing their powers as a sleuth. And the fun in figuring out the puzzle. The upshot is that you need not tell the child anything. They will breath the myth; they will interpret the myth. If they ask you a direct question, you can respond with a question that challenges them to use their reasoning to unravel mysteries on their own. Such is the power of Santa Claus.