As a child, I had a really hard time with the idea of Santa Claus.
Just like the Christian God, I had a hard time accepting the concept of a benevolent, all seeing, all knowing, being existing in a fantastical realm who granted miracles to everyone but me.
Life was hard for me growing up, and my parents had no love for the holidays. Not out of any particular reason, belief, or poverty as you might assume, but because it was a frivolity built on kindness – and they simply had no room for that in their hearts. As was their boundless cruelty, they did frequently speak of the Santa Claus mythos. Joyfully sharing with my siblings and I memories of their own Christmas mornings spent discovering brightly wrapped packages under a tree, delivered by a jolly man in a red suit.
Many a Christmas morning my little self rushed out of bed early, red curls tangled by sleep, to find nothing for me.
No tree had appeared.
No twinkling lights.
“But all the magic I have known I’ve had to make myself.”
I began a practice when my siblings were still small of spending the weeks leading up to the holiday saving or making them meager little baubles which I would lovingly fold into colorful Sunday newspaper comics salvaged from the nearby dump. More than once, creeping out in the the night to find a small cedar to cut and bring into their bedroom while they slept. A cardboard star covered in foil, some folded paper ornaments, a crocheted doll or two, and the scene was set to give them a small measure of wonder.
They never asked why Santa didn’t bring anything for me, and perhaps they knew that it was me all along.
Oftentimes this practice would result in some kind of corporal punishment, but largely it was unnoticed enough that my little trappings could disappear in the night just as they appeared, leaving behind only the gifts they had found. Nothing had permanence in our lives, and we had so little joy, but I wanted them to have the magic that I could not find for myself.
A Christmas Wish
One particular Christmas my parents decided for reasons unknown to me, to indulge the request of a relative and let us ride along with their children to see the holiday lights in town. I was around 9 if my best guess is accurate, and it was such an experience. My siblings, 6, and 2, respectively, stared in wonderment at the twinkling lights. There was hot chocolate given to us, as we joined our cousins to make a visit to Santa Claus, which was an unexpected part of the evening and I fearfully wondered what to say. In recollection, I was horribly nervous, perhaps thinking at the time that maybe he simply didn’t know about us, and that this visit would change everything.
And so it was that I made my way to the kindly man in the big chair to be hefted onto his lap, that I finally decided as he asked the question to end all questions.
“What would you like for Christmas?”
“What would you like for Christmas?” He asked, and in my heart, a God was finally seeing me – now those memories could be my own, I would awake to magic. Leaning in, I whispered to him that I wanted to be happy – that I wanted everything to be okay, and that I wanted my family to have Christmas. He told me that there is always happiness on Christmas, and asked if I wanted a toy. I may have muttered something about a Barbie like my cousin; he gave me a candy cane, and we moved on with our night.
I was over the moon however. He would come at last! I would awake to the twinkling lights of a tree, to the joy that I saw in my siblings eyes when they found those baubles wrapped in paper, there would be hugs from my parents, hot chocolate and smiles, and maybe, just maybe, even that pretty doll that I asked for.
Christmas morning came, one way or another, just like it always did. I had ticked away the days impatiently, was extra “good,” and I was buzzing with excitement. We would be a real family after this, there would be magic. But on Christmas morning… there was no joy. No tree. No twinkling lights. No brightly wrapped packages. My father, in his chair as always, yelling for his breakfast while my mother barked orders to my siblings and I. Timidly, I asked my father why Santa didn’t come.
“Because Santa doesn’t come to see bad kids.”
I was devastated. I’d asked for magic and there was none. But now – I saw my error. I had relied on someone else to do what I could have done, and for the first time, I saw tears well up in the eyes of my siblings on Christmas morning. I had taken the magic from them too by being a fool. Never again did I rely on Santa to bring them magic, it was okay if I was sad, as long as they had something to touch and hold. How were my parents children that Santa visited, but not us? I was confused, and angry. That day I became harder, my shell, tougher, my walls, higher. I would give them happiness, but I did not need it.
With years, my perspective changed.
In the years to come, I grew up, had children of my own, and came to understood what Santa Claus truly was. Through adult eyes, I’ve often looked back on that naive Christmas wish with tenderness, my heart breaking for that little child who didn’t understand. I read once that as you grow older you come to see that there is still “something to the ‘Christmas Spirit.’ Sure, perhaps there wasn’t a magic guy with a flying sleigh, etcetera, but there was an aspect of the human experience, a generosity, that we could sensibly personify as the chubby fellow in red. Santa didn’t live at the North Pole, but in the human heart.” Humans personifying a mythical role. Each becoming here and there the avatar of the Christmas Spirit. Now, with perspective I can recognize the sacred gift that I gave to my siblings, and then later my own children, by taking on that role even though I was never able to find that magic for myself. To bring a spirit into your heart and to act out its will is no small thing, and I wish more than anything that I could go back in time and tell that little girl how much magic she made in the world.
So yes, Lupita, there is a Claus. Whether dead or alive, literal or false, or even called by another name; we can hold that magic in our own heart and use it to better the world for another – and truly, that is the meaning of Christmas.
Quoted portion from Tom Swiss, the Zen Pagan, who’s done a bit of writing here and there on the topic of Santa. Linked you’ll find reference to the 1959 movie “Santa Claus” (or “Santa Claus vs. The Devil”) is a charming and whacky romp through a Christmas season through the eyes of Lupita, an impoverished child struggling with ideas of morality in a world that had already let her down. You’ll laugh, you’ll be confused by Santas spaceship, you’ll cringe at the North Poles lax child labor situation, and perhaps feel something along the way.