I remember the day well. I was six years old, and it was December 1982. I was sitting at the kidney-bean-shaped table in the front of my first-grade classroom, with the five or six other kids in my Advanced Reading group.
Mrs. Henighan asked us, “How many of you believe in Santa Claus?”
I raised my hand, of course. What was there not to believe? I didn’t realize there was any believing or not-believing involved. Santa had magic keys to my apartment, and brought me toys on Christmas Eve. End of story.
Only one or two other kids raised their hands.
The teacher then asked that fateful but inevitable follow-up question of the nonbelievers: “Why don’t you believe in Santa Claus?”
One kid said that Santa’s handwriting looked just like their Dad’s. Another said that they’d peeked out one Christmas Eve and seen their parents putting presents under the tree. I think one person said they’d never believed.
I was in shock and denial.
When I got home from school that day, I told my Mom what had happened, and asked her if Santa Claus was real. Of course, she then told me the story of Santa: how there once was a real man who gave toys to children on Christmas, and how we now celebrate Santa Claus as a symbol of the Spirit of Christmas.
It made sense, and the knowledge somehow made me feel a little older. A little less young.
Of all the things I don’t believe in anymore, I still believe in Santa Claus, after all this time. With all my prickly annoyance at insipid Christmas music and my denial of the faith in which I was raised, I still believe in the spirit of giving.
I also find it amazing that so many different brands of myth and folklore could come together to create this magical, mythical caricature of jollity and charity. Saint Nicholas must have been one hell of a guy.