I still remember when I popped the question about Santa to my mom in the kitchen, circa 1967. Ever the schoolteacher, she didn’t look up from drying the dishes and asked me a question back: “Well, what do you think?” I remember giving some know-it-all answer about how flying reindeer were clearly ridiculous–but maybe it was Mr. McClain, who lived down the street. That’s when she dried her hands and led me to the files where she kept her lesson plans, and pulled out an aged piece of paper that she had ripped out of a magazine before I was born–saving it for precisely this moment. The fact that she did that amazes me. The fact that she could find it after all those years, at precisely the moment she wanted it, bowls me over.
She took me into the living room and we both sat down on the floor by the Christmas tree. Here is the piece of paper she proceeded to read to me. “Yes, Virginia,” my mother began. “There is a Santa Claus.” And I sat in rapt attention, taking in that first long step into the adult world, where people know that Christmas is not about less than they thought, but about infinitely more. Among other things, it’s a world where people understand–theoretically–that Christmas is not primarily about them.
Somehow, I heard Francis Church’s 1897 letter to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon as an affirmation that the idea of “Santa” was far more than the man I had made him out to be. I didn’t feel lied to; I felt honored, invited into an unseen world of faith and generosity where adults like my mom and Francis Church and now Virginia apparently lived. I left that conversation quite convinced that Santa was real, if different–and convinced that I now got to be in on a great, glorious conspiracy to surprise the world with grace.
I loved being a part of that. I still do. I know that some people have far worse reactions to the news about Santa; I heard a story on NPR today about a family that kept the Santa myth going even as their kids became teenagers and adults, going to huge lengths to convey the “magic” of Santa, until finally their youngest child–in junior high at the time–blew the whistle. His mom, recounting the story, cried; the truth punctured the “magic.”
It made me wonder about how Christians tell the truth about Christmas: do we tell it as a magical story, a superhero origin myth like “Batman Begins”? Or do we tell the truth–that God came to dwell among us as a kid growing up on the poor side of town? Does the truth spoil the “magic” of Christmas, or does it make Christmas about even more than we can fathom, this baby-in-a-manger story, this God-among-us business challenging what our technically-obsessed culture counts as “real”? As Francis Church, the New York Sun editor, told Virginia: “Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can …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.”
There was a December day about fifteen years ago when my own seven-year-old got off the bus, stormed into the house, looked me in the eye and demanded: “Matt says there is no Santa. I want the truth, and I want it now!” Safe to say I lack my mother’s organizational genius; this was pre-internet, and I didn’t even try to find the Francis Church letter my mom read to me.
But years earlier I had tucked away a book, intended for this moment, and by what can only be called the grace of God, it was still in the closet. So Brendan and I sat on the floor by the Christmas tree and read the story of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra around the fourth century. Unlike most saints, who become famous for their miracles, Nicholas was originally known only for his kindness and generosity. One story circulated above all others: when the Bishop of Myra learned that three desperately poor sisters were unable to marry (and therefore doomed to lives as beggars) because they had no dowry, he decided to do something about it.
So Nicholas secretly gathered enough gold to fill a bag, rode by the family’s home one night and threw the gold through the window. He then set about collecting gold for the second sister’s dowry–and on another midnight ride, he tossed the bag of gold down the chimney (legend has it that some coins landed in the girl’s stocking, hanging from the mantel to dry).
Finally, when Nicholas had gathered enough gold for the third daughter, he made another secret midnight visit–but this time the girls’ father was waiting for him, eager to know the identity of their benefactor. Nicholas made the father promise not to share his true identity–and the secret of Santa began (obviously not a well-kept secret, but still…)
And so Sinterklaas (as the Dutch came to call Saint Nicholas) was not a superhero, but a saint–a man whose generosity and compassion reflected Christ so clearly that people called him holy. So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus–not because of the magic of Christmas or even the glad heart of childhood, but because through people like St. Nicholas, and like my mom, and even like you, Virginia, Christ dwells among us, “making all things new” (Rev. 21).