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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
Q. My question isn't very deep, but with Christmas coming I am concerned about the attitude of some friends who don't want their children to "believe in Santa Claus."
From almost infancy, they tell their children there isn't really a Santa and that it was all made up to sell more things at Christmastime. I think they're missing something, but I'm not sure how to tell them. What do you think? (Florida)
FATHER JOHN DIETZEN: I too think they are missing something - very big. It's always risky to analyze fantasies, but maybe it's worth trying for a moment.
Fantasies, perhaps especially for children, are critical ways of entering a world, a real world that is closed to us in ordinary human language and happenings. They are doors to wonder and awe, a way of touching something otherwise incomprehensible. Santa Claus, I believe, is like that.
No one has ever expressed this truth more movingly and accurately, in my opinion, than the great British Catholic author G.K. Chesterton in an essay years ago in the London Tablet. On Christmas morning, he remembered, his stockings were filled with things he had not worked for, or made, or even been good for.
The only explanation people had was that a being called Santa Claus was somehow kindly disposed toward him. "We believed," he wrote, that a certain benevolent person "did give us those toys for nothing. And ... I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
"Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
"Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.
"Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic good will."
Are not parents of faith blessed, countless times over, to have for their children (and for themselves) such a fantastic and playful bridge to infinite, unconditionally loving Goodness, the Goodness which dreamed up the Christmas event in the first place?
Call Santa Claus a myth or what you will, but in his name parents, and for that matter all of us who give gifts at this special time of the year, are putting each other in deeper touch with the "peculiarly fantastic good will" who is the ultimate Source of it all. Plus, it's fun!
I know Caleb and his brothers will figure out the Santa secret eventually, but I'm with Chesterton in resisting the elevation of science and reason to the exclusion of magic, of mystery, of faith. That's why I'm not giving up on Santa without a fight. Not everything we believe, I explain to Caleb, can be proved (or disproved) by science. We believe in impossible things, and in unseen things, beginning with our own souls and working outward. It's a delicate thing, preparing him to let go of Santa without simultaneously embracing the notion that only what can be detected by the five senses is real.
This all sounds like madness, I know, to people like Mr. Dawkins. But Chesterton held that believing in impossible things is actually the sanest position. "Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not," he hastened to add, "in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination." The alternatives to embracing man's mystical condition, he argued, are either to go the way of the materialist, who understands everything according to scientific principles, yet for whom "everything does not seem worth understanding," or the madman, who in trying to "get the heavens into his head" shatters his rational (but woefully finite) mind.
Interestingly, the curse leveled by Lewis's White Witch on Narnia -- an endless season of winter absent Christmas -- evokes both: an unholy snow smothering wondrous creation in false uniformity, and at the same time a kind of madness well understood in snowbound regions. It's not surprising that one of the first signs of the Witch's coming demise is that Father Christmas appears: "'I've come at last,'" says Santa. "'She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last.'"
"I was raised... I guess sort of Presbyterian. But on the other hand, I wasn't, really, because I don't think it was anything my parents really believed in...
"I would go to different friends' churches, and I was always very interested in the Catholic ones, largely because of the mystery of it all. In fact, I was quite sorry when they stopped having the Mass in Latin, because after I could understand what everyone was saying, a lot of the mystery went right out of it." #