From the time I was old enough to recognize him, until well past the time most children would have been done with such things, Santa visited our house on Christmas Eve.
The first present I received from him, a floating rubber bath duck with a hollowed-out back meant to hold soap, both thrilled and terrified me. Delighted by the gift, I feared Santa’s early visit would mean no presents under the tree in the morning.
My parents assured me that Santa visited before bedtime only so children could meet him. Even as he stood in our living room, his elves at the North Pole were continuing to fill his sleigh for the journey that would begin once he returned home. The next morning, I discovered they’d been right, and from that year forward I awaited Santa’s visit with eagerness.
The ritual never varied. At the sound of sleighbells and stomping on the steps, my father would look over the top of his newspaper and say, “Better go see who’s at the door.” In a flash I was at the door, throwing it open to hearty laughter, shiny black boots, a beard as white as the snow filling our yard, and a present from the hand of Santa himself.
Eventually, curiosity and increasing sophistication led to questions. I began to suspect my parents knew Santa’s true identity, but they swore ignorance, and Santa kept arriving throughout my junior and senior high school years. By the time I reached my senior year in high school, rubber duck soap dishes had gone by the wayside. That year, Santa brought Chanel No.5.
Only with college looming on the horizon did my parents confess. “Santa” had been one of my father’s co-workers, and one of his best friends. Every year, his visits to children of colleagues had provided memories enough for a lifetime, but he’d decided to retire, and let someone else make the rounds on Christmas Eve.
My parents played bridge regularly with Mr. and Mrs. Claus, so I saw them often, and we had more than a few laughs about those years. During my first Christmas holiday from college, they stopped by for a short visit on Christmas Eve, and we talked again about the changes that had come for us all.
Then, we heard the sleigh bells. And the stomping. And the pounding on the door. “What in the world?” said my mother. “What the heck is that?” said the former Santa. “I guess you might want to go to the door,” said my father.
Completely mystified, I went to the front door, only to find Santa on the front stoop. A little chubbier, a little more bearded, and a good bit heartier in his laugh than my former Santa, he said not a word. With a bow, he handed me a package, then turned and disappeared around a corner of the house, into the snow.
Shutting the door, I went back into the living room and confronted the adults. Swearing they’d had no hand in it, they were equally puzzled. Finally, my mother had the good sense to say, “Well, open the package.”
The silver and pearl necklace shimmered in the light.
I still have the necklace, of course, even though I have no knowledge of its source. I wear it from time to time, and always at Christmas. Each time I put it on, I think of Virginia O’Hanlon, who sent her own question about Santa to the New York Sun in 1897, and Francis Pharcellus Church, whose response has become history’s most reprinted editorial.
In a world too often tempted toward cynicism and despair, it’s not the worst thing to read at Christmas:
I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. 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. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
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. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? 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. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a 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. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he 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.
May he make glad your hearts this season. Merry Christmas!
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