I distinctly remember sitting in my driveway in my old Hyundai Tucson—stick shift, I might add—about a decade ago, cogitating on all things divine, trying to sort out what I believed about religion. I won’t go into the full story here, but I am a “revert,” which is to say I was baptized as an infant, eventually fell away from the little and unformed faith I did have, and then came back. That is a story told in other places. For our purposes, it is relevant—given the approaching Christmas season—that I tell you how Santa Claus was instrumental in my return to the sacraments.
Like most nominally Catholic children, I was raised in a home where religion was seen as something good that it would be ideal to follow, but without any conviction or real formation. I attended lukewarm—sadly heretical much of the time—Catholic schools and essentially graduated from the Catholic Church when I graduated from high school.
Despite our irreligiosity, Christmas was very important to us, but more for cultural reasons given my mother’s having come from Italy as an adolescent. The Christmas season of my childhood is filled with happy memories of sitting at the table with Nonno and Nonna, trying to sneak sips of espresso emboldened with grappa, only to realize how awful Italian moonshine—that is basically what it is—tasted. Of course, my tastes have changed, and a bit of grappa in a caffè goes a long way, but I digress.
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Nonna would always prepare the greatest of feasts, usually beginning with a lasagna or baked pasta—my favorite being penne baked with pesto alla crema. It should be noted, for any foodies, that her lasagna, done in the more central/northern Tuscan manner, did not have any cheese in it but was, instead, prepared with ribbon-thin velvety sheets of pasta, with the many layers filled with a delicate amount of ragù and besciamella. Nonno was a religious man, and he would often tell me, “si mangia e si beve e si va a vedere il Signore.” These words he lived by (and I do too) mean, “we eat, and we drink, and we go see the Lord.”
I believed in God as a child, and I loved hearing those words. Although Christmas was not an overtly religious time in my immediate family, my heart was filled with the warmth of Christian joy when we would enter the sanctuary of Nonna’s kitchen and the heavenly smells of Christmas feasting filled my soul like a sip of whiskey warms your limbs on a cold day.
When I encountered a crisis of faith in my early twenties, I was able to essentially forget about God, that is until I would visit Nonno and Nonna at Christmas. I was struck with this unshakable sadness that if I lost the little faith I did have, I would lose the happiness of Nonno’s words and Nonna’s lasagna.
So, there I sat in my driveway about a decade ago—I am presently 35 years old —struggling with that crisis and examining my interior life and the deepest beliefs in my soul. As I thought about Christmas and God, I came upon an old friend that I had forgotten about—and stopped believing in—many years prior. I believe it was in grade four that I stopped believing in Santa in the objective sense. It wasn’t a drastic or traumatic moment, as I had inklings that Santa was a folktale and make-believe, but it was a moment I did remember.
At this time in my life, I was a recovering relativist, having been raised in a society that held to such mantras as “my truth” and “your truth.” If something was true for you, it might not be true for me, and so on. The subjectivist mindset is a difficult philosophical obstacle to overcome when it comes to religion. If we are to say that we believe in God, then God must really exist, and if He really exists, then it must also be true that it would be impossible for him not to exist. In addition, if God is real, then we must consider the different claims about God, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. They cannot all be true.
Well, I was not yet a Thomist—I am an Augustinian in my heart of hearts—so I did not have the philosophical tools of realism to guide my interior search for God. So, at the time, I thought about God in a more psychological or sentimental way. In essence, I was gripped with this interior sadness at the loss of true Christmas, and therefore the loss of Christ, and I could not understand why that would make me so sad unless there was a real reason to believe in Christ and the Christian faith. After all, if Christ was a myth or a delusion, then for me to be sad about the loss of Christmas happiness was nothing more than something like nostalgia for a fantastical superstition. This thought process, of course, did not bring me any consolation.
What was wrong with me if I was sad about losing something that was based on a lie? What did that say about the weakness of my character and how susceptible I was to delusions?
Many converts or reverts will tell you that there came a moment when they prayed that dangerous and powerful prayer of asking God to reveal Himself if He truly was real. Well, I did not pray that prayer; instead, I thought about Santa Claus.
You see, when I was young, I really believed in Santa, and I was very happy when I did. So, I said to myself, “What did you understand then that you don’t understand now?” How could it be that as a grown man with an education, a career, a wife, and so on, I was not able to have the peace of mind and the happiness of soul of a small child? Well, in that moment it hit me that there was something wrong with me that I never considered: I had lost the ability to believe in Santa because I had lost the ability to believe.
I recalled the happiness of those years setting out cookies and milk for St. Nick, listening for footsteps on the roof, and rushing down the stairs in the morning to find gifts from the North Pole under the tree. As an aside, has anyone considered that Santa might actually be a Canadian, given that he is from the North Pole, after all?
At any rate, without knowing it, I saw my spiritual sickness for what it really was: a loss not of childishness but of the ability to be childlike. “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
A child can believe in Santa because a child is innocent and doesn’t waste time on the hyper-rationalization of grown-ups who bifurcate reality into real and unreal, proven and unproven, ones and zeros, and profit and expenditure. A child believes in Santa because a child knows that in those moments of whimsical make-believe, the land of fairy stories is really the land of fairy stories. When he runs about the yard with a stick in hand accompanied by the family dog, he is really marching into battle with a sword and his faithful steed.
That we lose this faculty of imagination when we age is not a sign of maturity or improvement but a loss of simple happiness and an understanding that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
To a child, Santa is real because the joy of the Child born in Bethlehem is so real that it is only fitting that we express our love for that Infant and His Mother with poetry and song and festive merriment. And that yearning for poetical and artistic worship is so powerful that we must go beyond simply reading stories and singing carols; we must live those stories and imbibe that magnificence of the Incarnation. To a child, Santa is real because the joy of the Child born in Bethlehem is so real that it is only fitting that we express our love for that Infant and His Mother with poetry and song and festive merriment.Tweet This
Santa is a myth, but he is a real myth. He is the figure that begins in our imaginations as the happiness of Triumph of the Incarnate Word bubbles up in our souls to the point that we cannot hold it in. Santa is like the heavenly exhale of Christmas joy to the point where the Innocence of Christ is incarnated in the imaginary person of Kris Kringle. Far from taking away from the literal and historical truth of Christmas, Santa is the personification of that truth which moves our hearts beyond the limits of pure rational and historical thought. He is not a substitute for Christ but the happy result of our overflowing love of Christ.
In the sixth installment of Lewis’ Narnia series, we happen upon a scene that encapsulates my train of thought better than I ever could. The children, the prince, and Puddleglum find themselves in the underworld, under the spell of the Queen of the Underworld. The underworld is a magical world, but in reverse. The Queen does not use magic to shackle the inhabitants in what we would normally call fantasy but instead shackles them in a despairing existence dominated by the fantasy that only rational and material truths compose reality as a whole. She tries to convince her captives that Aslan is a myth and that Narnia is only imaginary. As their discourse progresses, Puddleglum exclaims to her and his companions:
But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia.
Lewis does not mean to imbibe in the reader a sense of religious subjectivism but instead uses literary devices to show us what Christ meant for us when He told us to become like children. Puddleglum understands what I learned, that before I could believe in Christ as a Real Person, I had to learn to believe with the simplicity of a child, which shows us the wisdom of God but seems, to all-too-serious grown-ups, as the foolishness of men.
I understand that there is no Santa in the sense that there is a Real Christ, but I also know that there would be something wrong with me if I was not able to believe in the real Santa the way a child really believes in the Personification of the Incarnation in the person of Kris Kringle.
I also know that the existence of Santa depends on the existence of Christ, as “in the Beginning was the Word… All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made.” For this reason, we might say that Santa truly is the archetype of the true Christian, in that he is the manifestation of the timeless faith in Christ that changes not only history, but the interior and imaginary world of the Christian heart.
Perhaps Chesterton said it best:
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way. As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good—far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, 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 goodwill.
This Christmas Eve, I will set out cookies with my children, and when they are asleep dreaming of sugarplums, I will sneak downstairs and gladly eat a portion of my wife’s otherworldly shortbread and follow it up with a gulp of milk. I will set the presents under the tree and contemplate the Star of Bethlehem sitting atop the tree, that led the Wise Men to the Manger, and I will be thankful to the jolly man in the red suit who led me to the Child who saved my soul. I really do believe in Santa, and because of that, I really do believe in Christ; and I am thankful beyond measure to both.
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