On Loving and Losing St. Nick
Santa and the power (and pitfalls) of imagination
Posted Dec 01, 2013
If you were to ask my parents how they happened to end up with two Santa-obsessed daughters on the cusp of adolescence, they’d tell you that they enjoyed the many years of creativity that our Santa-belief generated. They encouraged us, at first, forging responses to our litany of questions, though largely they left us to our own devices. Each year, the world we imagined surrounding the nature of Santa became increasingly sophisticated. We erected a pulley system between our bedrooms for sending conspiratorial notes, and considered the role of magic, pondered off-season life at the Pole, and the very soul of the improbable individual around whom this whole seasonal mythology swirled. Naturally, there were ambiguous elf sightings.
Faith, a concept still both murky and alluring to me as an adult, was explained to me as a child as unquestioning belief in things you can’t see. The idea, to my elementary school-aged self, was full of intrigue, without quite disclosing what my place in that was. Faith seemed to just exist or it didn’t, while the things that required it were myriad, and usually marked by a transcendence of the laws of physics that felt as reassuring as it did suspect. I loved the magic of Christmas Eve mass, the soulful music, the reverence, and left church feeling stirred, but yearning for something directed in all of it, something personalized. It was pretty hard not to be taken by a person so attuned to my own good intentions that he turned a blind eye to all the year’s unsavory deeds, and gave me the right color radio alarm clock.
What rational good could this investment of energy served? Certainly most of my childhood games involved plenty of inventiveness without the fishy component of misplaced belief. But belief isn’t always absolute. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People connects creativity with the ability to be simultaneously naïve and realistic. This held true, to the extent my Santa-belief was not just goofily misguided, but an actual creative enterprise. It was definitely an interpersonal one. I was savvy enough to build this secret world only with my sister, accepting, wisely, as the years marched on, that no one else would understand. The truth was complex, because actually, I recognized my father’s handwriting on those letters. And yet, my suspension of disbelief was so intentional that the whole thing became less about a narrative society was selling, than a reality I owned.
My oldest daughter is now 8, and I can’t help but wonder if this is the year I should introduce the truth. It won’t require much backpedaling—my own inappropriately long obsession made me hesitant to be complicit in launching my own children’s. My Santa fantasy had required highly evolved imaginative capacities, something I generally endorse. And yet, when asked point-blank to confirm or deny existence, I’ve favored a cynical, ‘what do you think?’
Perhaps as a result, Santa has never been a huge thing in our house. My younger daughter is terrified of the idea of someone shimmying down our non-existent chimney, and for my older two children, he’s always been more of an afterthought. Last Christmas, my oldest daughter’s mounting, if noncommittal skepticism made me think the end was near, and I was content to embrace that. But this year, I've hesitated—and my daughter has hesitated too.
As we stand here teetering, I’ve been wondering what held me captive for so long. The Santa myth extended itself far deeper than a blind fondness for gifts, elves, or disconcertingly omniscient men. My belief had much less to do with my own gullibility than with a reluctance to dismantle something I’d constructed myself, something that became a sanctuary for my childhood, a place where things only changed if I let them. Though adults often get the credit for being the most nostalgic, children are acutely aware of the fact that things don’t stay the same. I remember being bowled over on the eve of my tenth birthday that life was just going to keep going on like this, that I’d have to accept whatever kept coming along.
The world did keep coming along, and one day, Santa and the world he inhabited vanished, with unceremonious and sort of embarrassing finality. At times, I’ve felt guilty for not embracing my own parents’ sense of fun and wonder, nudging my children to build a world that gave me so much pleasure. The Santa Lie gets a lot of flack, though I have a hard time believing that most of us emerge from childhood without being disabused of much more significant worldviews. Still, this season, I’ll be on the lookout for magic minus the early expiration date.
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© Debra Liese Dec. 2013