The Nature of Santa

I had the same English teacher for tenth and twelfth grades; her favorite joke (at least in class) was: “How is a complex sentence like Santa? They both have subordinate clauses!”

When Michael was in fourth grade, he asked me the question that parents dread. (No, not that one — the other one.) He and I were travelling down to the nearby scout reservation for a parent-son weekend in early November, and about three-quarters of the way there he turns to me and asks, “Dad, is Santa real?”

I knew that he suspected he knew the answer. I was actually surprised that he was asking; I had guessed that he had figured it out a year or two prior. Perhaps he was asking so that he knew how to approach the subject with Brian (who was not along on this trip). Perhaps he really didn’t know the answer. Perhaps he was just looking for conversation. Whatever the reason, I now had a question I had to provide an answer to, and I felt that it had to be a really good answer.

In September of 1897, Francis Pharcellus Church wrote an editorial in the New York Sun in response to a letter to the editor from an eight-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. It has since become one of the most reprinted editorials of all time, and most of the residents of the United States are very familiar with the opening line of the second paragraph, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” I have never been particularly satisfied with Mr. Church’s response; while it is a beautiful piece of writing and deserves the accolades it receives, to me it sort of skirts around the issue. It proclaims that Santa is real but you can’t prove it, you can only feel it. It is just something you know to be true. I knew that Michael was not going to be quite satisfied with this answer – especially not the parts of it I could remember while I was driving. So, I told him the truth. And it is a truth that you may have realized, but were not able to put into words. And it is the truth that I feel that Mr. Church was trying to convey in his editorial response.

There is no doubt that the Santa Claus, as portrayed on television, in movies, and in books, is not an actual person. There is no strange man that comes into your house every Christmas Eve and leaves presents under the tree. There is no toy factory at the North Pole, there are no flying reindeer or legions of worker elves. This does not mean, however, that Santa Claus does not exist; Santa Claus exists in a form different that that one. The images you have of Santa Claus is a personification of the feeling of goodwill and charity felt in the middle of the winter. “Do you know what personification is?” I asked Michael. “Yes,” he replied, “it’s when you give something human attributes.” “Good for you. At least I don’t have to define that term.”

Santa Claus travels around the world and leaves gifts for all children. He does this not through magic or near-light-speed travel, but through the simple fact that this feeling is everywhere. Santa has many hands and many hearts. Yes, I am Santa. So is your mother. So, too, are you when you, with a cheerful heart, give a gift to someone else.

Santa Claus is not a person. Santa Claus is much larger than a single person; Santa Claus is a feeling that touches the heart of people across the globe. Santa Claus goes by many names: Father Christmas, Pere Noel, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle. These are all names for the same emotion — the same sense of togetherness — that people feel at this time of year. It is something felt by the community; it is a feeling of wanting to help your family and your friends and your neighbors. In the cold dark of winter, in the climes where the legend of Santa Claus arose, where the sun lights only a small portion of the day, it was this feeling of helpfulness and togetherness that kept spirits afloat and kept people alive. Over time, this feeling was personified and named after Saint Nicholas, who embodied that feeling of generosity. But emotion of Santa Claus is larger than the historical St. Nicholas, and are even older. When you give a gift to someone, you are participating in that shared experience. You become Santa Claus in that instant.

My son thought about that explanation for a moment and thought that that made a lot of sense. There was no feeling that he had been misled, no anger at the continuing charade perpetuated by modern society, and no sadness over losing a part of his childhood. He simply redefined what was included in his definition of “real” and was happy with it. And this explanation is not simply an explanation of convenience, either. It is truly how I feel about Santa. We took a feeling and personified it. Would you say that love is not real? We personify love in the form of Cupid, and talk about Cupid’s arrows, and equate Cupid with love. The only difference between Cupid and Santa Claus is that we have separate words for Cupid and love; for Santa we don’t have a term for the emotions, the feelings that we are personifying. The person Santa and the emotion Santa are the same word. Santa the feeling is hard to describe; it is not charity, it is not love, but it is somewhere in the middle. It is, perhaps, an amplified feeling of philia. It is, without a doubt, Santa Claus.

I have reproduced here in an embellished and expanded fashion that response I gave to Michael, but is accurate in depicting the content and tone of the message. Michael finished the conversation by asking, “So if I get a gift for Brian at Christmas, I will be Santa, too? I like that.”

Yes, little man, yes you will.

And so, dear reader, when your children are questioning their belief in Santa Claus — be it this Christmas, or some Christmas in the future, or over the summer — feel free to tell them the same. Even if you and your family do not celebrate Christmas but you children want to know who Santa Claus is, you can answer with this. Mr. Church wrote of fairies and things unseen in his famous editorial, but I would urge anybody to speak instead of Santa Claus being fellowship and caring for every one around you.

Whatever your vision of Santa Claus, however you view this personification, may the corresponding emotion of Santa Claus stay with you throughout the coming year. If you can afford it, may you continue to be generous to those who need more help even in the height of summer, for caring and compassion know no clime. And, after all, a whole year of caring, compassion, and thoughtfulness is what gets you on Santa’s nice list.