Looking down from the second-story window of our spare bedroom, the family collection of shovels, sleds, salt bags, and skates filled the front porch: limned at night by the faint glow of the corner streetlight. Protected from wind and blowing snow by heavy plastic sheeting, even the metal-framed glider remained on the porch, ready to accept a full complement of boots, mittens, and scarves.
Still too young to have begun sneaking books and flashlights into my closet, I was old enough to have experienced Santa in person, and each Christmas Eve, shivering with expectation and excitement, I’d watch from that second story window for the arrival of the Great Gift-Giver.
After one of his first visits to our house, only clever parenting saved me from a slide into disbelief. Peering into the recesses of the porch from my second-story perch, I noticed something unusual tucked into a corner of the glider. The light may have been dim, but a yellow body and orange bill clearly suggested a duck: although what a duck might be doing on our front porch, I couldn’t say.
Before I could solve the riddle, the sound of bells, a heavy knock at the door, and a parental call from below meant Santa had arrived for his yearly visit. Flying down the stairs, I found St. Nick waiting for me, holding a yellow rubber duck with an orange bill. It was, in fact, the porch duck: a floating soap holder for the bath.
After Santa left, I had questions: particularly, why had he brought me a present I’d already spotted on our porch? I didn’t yet know the word ‘chicanery,’ but I suspected it was afoot.
My father had the answer. With so many children to visit, Santa needed help; his elves made sure each child’s Christmas Eve gift was in place so Santa’s bag wasn’t so heavy. Other elves stayed at the North Pole, filling bags with toys for Santa’s big around-the-world nighttime journey. After finding more gifts from Santa under the tree on Christmas morning, I decided the explanation made sense, and never again questioned Santa’s Christmas Eve visits.
The ritual never varied. At the sound of sleigh bells and heavy boots, my father would look up from his newspaper and say, “Better see who’s at the door,” Always, the door opened to hearty laughter; shiny black boots; a beard as white as a falling snow, and a present from the hand of Santa himself.
Eventually, I understood that my parents almost certainly knew Santa’s true identity, but they swore ignorance, and Santa kept arriving. By the time I reached my senior year in high school, the rubber duck soap dish had gone by the wayside and Santa was bringing Chanel N°5.
Then, with college looming on the horizon, my parents finally confessed. ‘Santa’ had been one of my father’s co-workers, and one of his best friends. While yearly visits to children of colleagues had been great fun, the already retired engineer decided it was time to retire his role as Santa, and those of us who’d enjoyed his visits finally learned the truth.
Since my parents regularly played bridge with ‘Mr. and Mrs. Claus,’ I saw them often, and we had more than a few laughs about those yearly visits. During my first return from college for the Christmas holiday, we shared a short visit on Christmas Eve, talking again about our long-standing tradition.
Then, we heard sleigh bells. And heavy stomping. And a pounding on the door. “What in the world?” said my mother. “What the heck’s that?” said the former Santa. My father said, “You might want to answer the door.”
Mystified, I went to the front door and opened it to find Santa himself standing on the front stoop. A little chubbier, more bearded, and a good bit heartier in his laugh than my childhood Santa, he said not a word. Bowing, he handed me a package before turning and disappearing into the night.
Back in the living room, I confronted the adults, who swore ignorance. Finally, my mother had the good sense to say, “Well, open the package.”
Limned by candlelight, the silver and pearl necklace shimmered.
I still have the gift, although I never learned the identity of the giver. Whenever I wear it, I always think of Virginia O’Hanlon and her own concerns about Santa’s existence. Young Virginia sent her question to the New York Sun in 1897, and Francis Pharcellus Church, asked to respond to her letter, produced what has become history’s most reprinted editorial.
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.
Although not writing in response to a particular child, and despite not being specifically concerned with Santa Claus, the poet T.S. Eliot clearly shared journalist Church’s convictions about the importance of wonder. In this excerpt from “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” Eliot writes:
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (pubs open ’til midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree
May not be forgotten in later experience —
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert —
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children.
Both Church and Eliot clearly respected children, and both understood that the spirit of season is a spirit of wonder. In the eyes of a child like Virginia Hanlon — or any other child, of any age — the line between wonder and miracle can be exceedingly thin.
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