was never fond of the commercialized image of Santa Claus. But I was always even more troubled by his traditional portrayal as the conditional giver of toys — “You better be good, you better not cry.” Only good little girls and boys qualified.
As a child, I’m don’t really remember actually believing in Santa Claus. When I was five, I woke up on the night of Christmas Eve to noises in the bathroom behind my room. The next morning I asked what the noise was and my father, using that tone of voice grownups use when they want to make up an answer to a kid, told me it must have been Santa Claus. I had my doubts. I wondered why he would have invented that it was Santa Claus when it just as easily could have been him.
I remember pondering the question the whole year. I was a very curious kid in a family that kept many secrets. I learned to piece together information a little at a time. I’d do this in rooms when my parents thought I wasn’t, or sitting behind a door when they thought I was asleep. I kept my thoughts to myself and gathered my evidence.
The next winter I started to systematically search the house’s many hiding places. I found a box of fancy watercolors. I liked to draw and figured the box must be for me. I waited patiently. On Christmas morning I asked who’d given the watercolors. “Santa Claus,” I was told. So I had my answer. Santa Claus was my dad.
I’d been told that if you didn’t believe in Santa Claus you wouldn’t get presents. So I made a sort of Pascal’s Wager — If you don’t believe but pretend you do, you’ll still get presents, and you lose nothing. So I pretended. I also liked that the “real” Santa Claus was in the big department store in Boston, and if I believed, my father would take me there so I could see the decorated department store windows and have lunch with him.
I often wondered why, as a “non-believer” I kept up the myth of Santa Claus with my own kids. It may have been because my father got such a kick out of it he almost believed it himself. He arrived in the United States as the 10-year-old child of immigrants and soon began working after school and on weekends. The delight he had in giving his kids a different childhood with abundance of toys must have been a contagious bug because I certainly caught it. And Santa Claus was part of it. Another part was that while some of my presents officially came from my parents (those chosen by my mother with her writing on the tag) while others had no “sender” and came from Santa Claus (the ones my father picked out). If I liked them, there was no need for gratitude, and if I didn’t, well, Santa Claus wasn’t there. I was never made to feel guilty.
Some may read these words as a promotion of consumerism. True, an abundance of expensive gifts can be a reflection of the problem — some parents give gifts to compensate for what they can’t give in the emotional sphere, or because they’re insecure enough to need a concrete way to compensate. But none of that should take away from the joy of seeing the deep pleasure kids get from ripping open their presents.
To me, there’s something worth preserving in that magical area between belief and non-belief, in a myth handed down and transformed over generations, in a holiday that celebrates the return of the sun and the birth of a child. Why overthink holiday that calls for bringing a living tree to bloom in your home and giving toys to children? Why do we do all this? For love, for joy, and for pleasure, all of which seem like good reasons to me.