The Most Real Things in the World
Yes, Virginia, there is still a Santa Claus.
We've always been pretty high on Santa Claus here in the Fryxell household. Our Santa fixation has only a little to do with the greedy, gimme-gimme side of Christmas — even in our daughter's younger, more presents-centric days — and more with the "Yes, Virginia" magic of fairies dancing on the lawn.
This Christmas still, though our daughter is a married woman in a home of her own, I will do the traditional Christmas Eve reading of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Many of our Christmas Eves have also included a recitation of "The Night Before Christmas." Having already exchanged presents in person at Thanksgiving (now "Thanksmas" for our family, as we combine the holidays so our daughter and son-in-law can spend Christmas with his clan in Denver), we'll be honoring this family tradition via Skype. But I'll no doubt get a little teary-eyed and my voice may choke as the magic of the Internet transmits the New York Sun's 1897 response to eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon about the importance of childlike faith, poetry and romance "to make tolerable this existence."
Unlike some fathers, though, at least those in holiday movies and sitcoms, I've never dressed up as Santa Claus. What would be the point, when the real "jolly old elf" is perfectly capable of making his own appearances around the globe at lightspeed?
We've had our own Santa sightings (or hearings) nonetheless. The family's fondness for Saint Nick may in fact partly trace to our first Christmas in Pittsburgh, when our daughter was only two. My parents flew out to visit and we were all gathered 'round on Christmas Eve in our rented house, when we were startled by a sound on the roof that could only have been the prancing and pawing of reindeer hoofs. (An alternate theory might hold that our next-door neighbor was responsible, knowing we had a youngster, perhaps tossing rocks up onto our roof. But the family was Jewish, so that makes no sense at all. Obviously, Occam's razor says it had to have been Santa's sleigh.)
In subsequent years, Santa's Christmas Eve visits to our house always left a trail of "magic snow" in the form of boot-prints from his magical entrance (a door, since we lacked a fireplace — just as well for Santa's safety) to the tree and back. Forensic analysis, "CSI"-style, might determine a similarity between this magical, un-melting snow and common baking soda, which just goes to show you how clever old Saint Nick is.
Several years, when we happened to leave a Polaroid camera (remember those?) out near the Christmas tree, Santa would even take time to snap an instant photo of our cat, looking up at him. We'd find the snapshot in the morning beside the emptied plate of cookies and glass of milk. If only our cat could talk, besides the occasional "meow," what stories she could have told of meeting Santa!
And one memorable year, when we were still in Pittsburgh in a house of our own, we actually spotted the "right jolly old elf." We had ventured out in the snowy night after opening presents on Christmas Eve (the big event still to come for our daughter the next morning) to view the holiday lights. We drove slowly through the silent night, other families mostly at church or their own living-room celebrations, pointing to this or that over-the-top decoration. Then, down a side street, we spotted the unmistakable figure of a man dressed in red and white, toting a bag over his shoulder. Who else could it possibly be but Santa himself?
It might seem odd for a committed rationalist and fact-loving skeptic like me to spend even one season of the year wallowing in the sentiment expressed by the Sun's editorial writer, Francis Pharcellus Church: "Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see." (Of course, we did see Santa, but I digress.)
But I'm a romantic at heart, and still fondly recall my own childhood Christmas mornings. If that wasn't magic, waiting in the hall by my bedroom while my father plugged in the tree lights for the full Christmas-morning effect, knowing that presents had appeared in our living room overnight, there's no magic left in this world. Perhaps if Santa hadn't been so busy — he does have billions of households to visit and only one night to do it, after all — he might have been able to help my dad assemble the "authentic Wild West town" that was the highlight of Christmas one year. And, yes, my dad's mumbled cursing as he struggled with that cast-metal "authenticity" did take a bit of the glow off Christmas morning. But that was hardly Santa's fault, was it? Places to go, billions of children to deliver to.
When we had a child of our own, I wanted nothing more than to re-create that magic for her come Christmas each year. It wasn't just the presents, though of course every Christmas brought the obligatory parade of Barbies and Care Bears and other now-long-forgotten toys. It was the feeling that on one day — one evening and the following morning, at least — every year there was a parting of that "veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart."
Never mind that all too soon some of the toys would be broken or discarded. Yes, mere minutes after the magical moment of first seeing the tree and presents on Christmas morning, we'd be making coffee, reading the paper, going through the motions of starting any other, ordinary day. The discarded wrapping paper, so recently wondrous under the tree, would be crumpled up in the trash along with the explosion of boxes from opened presents. Even the "magic snow" left by Santa's boots would be vacuumed up before day's end.
We live most of 364 days a year in the mundane, grabbing what transitory joys we can out of work, home, family, the glimpse of a sunset or a hawk soaring overhead. Is it too much to ask that one day a year we make room for magic? This rationalist, fact-checking skeptic is willing to suspend disbelief and keep an eye peeled for Santa Claus.
Since moving to the desert Southwest — this will be our 10th Christmas here, hard to believe! — we haven't had much in the way of Santa sightings. But I figure he has to spend most of his time tending to households with young children. We're content to Skype his story to our grown-up child and her husband in Denver and to share our own modest holiday celebration in the tree-lit glow of our home, where it's seldom a white Christmas and that's fine by us.
One of these days — and we're in no hurry, please! — we may have grandchildren to share Santa Claus with. I'm certain that he'll spread as much magic and joy with them as he did with their mother and, long ago, with me. As the Sun pointed out in its reply to Virginia, Santa not only lives, but lives forever: "A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
I'll read those lines again this Christmas Eve to my daughter, long distance, and maybe someday I'll get to read them to my grandchildren. (Did I mention no hurry, honey?) I'll choke my way through, the romantic in me overpowering my rational, skeptical side on this one special night of the year.
Afterward, lying in bed and remembering Christmas Eves long ago as a child when I struggled between excitement and the desire to get to sleep so next morning would come more quickly, I will listen for the sound of prancing and pawing on our roof. The jingling overnight that ordinarily I'd attribute to Pippin, our youngest cat who needs a bell so we can locate him, might just have a different source this night. And if there's no magic snow on our living-room floor in the morning, well, it's a long way to New Mexico from the North Pole, and it's probably all fallen off by the time Santa gets here.
Your little friends are wrong, Virginia, now just as they were way back in 1897. "They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds."
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy."
Yes, Virginia. Oh, yes.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.