My niece, three nephews and I had a healthy and spirited discussion a week or so ago about.... well .... Santa Claus. Not that anyone among us had anything against that red suited, white-bearded, rolly-poly, globetrotting and sleigh-riding icon of the Yuletide season afflicted with the insatiable obsession with gift giving. It is just that, we could not agree among ourselves, God help us, whether he really exists or not.
To my niece and one nephew, both just about ready to enter into their teens, Santa remains an unquestionably real albeit unseen presence in their young lives every Christmas. They regularly write every November to the guy at the North Pole to tell him exactly what they want to receive as a present on Christmas Eve and, so far, they have not been really disappointed. Either both of them have been really well behaved the past few years or Santa has been extra generous with them for one reason or another.
The two older boys, both already growing wispy tufts of downy hair on their upper lips and thus already thinking of themselves as wiser in the ways of the world, have vehemently declared, to the tearful consternation of their younger companions, that Santa Claus is a myth. The gifts come from their own parents, they say, giggling all the while at the folly of all the deluded children who were still too young and foolishly naive to believe in the illusion and the lie.
As they all squabbled and bickered among themselves, I tried to remember when I exactly started not to believe in Santa and the Santa Claus myth myself. After a few minutes of pondering, I realized that, for the life of me, I never actually believed in the man and the myth even as a child.
Even as a young lad, I had already an intensely logical and matter of fact mind. I could not understand then, even now, how someone living way up in the icy and barren lands of the north can know what all the millions of children all over the world wanted for Christmas, much less who among them have, for that matter, been good or misbehaving. Such surely omnipotent knowledge and prescience seemed to me rather too much for one man, even someone special and magical, to handle. It also seemed rather blasphemous to me that such God-like powers be present in one being who was certainly not the God I was taught to worship.
Being raised in a tropical country, I have never seen real life reindeer and had doubts about them, their flying abilities, and the feasibility of wooden sleighs that vault through the night sky, magical they may be. The sleighs strapped to carabaos I have often seen used by farmers seemed such bulky and unwieldy things possessing little in the way of the aerodynamic qualities needed for swift and stable flight.
The houses in Lianga had no chimneys and I doubted then that Santa would have been able to squeeze through the house windows with their tight metal grills or the sturdy wooden doors with double barrel locks. Besides, Boomer, the family dog then, was a zealous guard dog who would have barked his head off, if not venture a toothy nip, at the sight and smell of a flying, bearded man and his company of presumably smelly, antlered beasts.
My siblings and I also never hanged Christmas socks by the fireplace. In the first place, we never had a fireplace and the socks we all had we used in tandem with shoes. I personally felt then that the practice was a bit strange if not nonsensical. How could the gifts I wanted fit in my tiny socks? And why use a smelly sock when a large box or package would do nicely?
Yet our parents never disabused us, their children, of fantasizing about Santa, Mrs. Santa and his house full of elves at the frozen top of the world. In the same way, they indulged us when we dreamed of gingerbread houses in wooded forests where Hansel and Gretel roamed, of untold treasures and impossible adventures with Simbad the Sailor at the helm of masted ships, of princes that turn to frogs at a royal lady's chaste kiss or of mythic gods and goddesses who played with the hearts and fates of mortal men.
Their idea then was to give us as much leeway as possible, to give us the freedom to sift through what was fantasy and reality and trusting in our capacity and capability to be able to discern the real from the imaginary, the absurd from the concrete, the true meat from the useless gristle of life's experiences. In retrospect, they have not been wrong in their belief and trust in us.
In the end, I ended the heated discussion between my niece and her cousins with a Solomonic admonition. I told them that Santa Claus does not come only in the form of the jolly, fat man with the white beard and red fur suit. He comes most often in the form of those who love us dearly and who, during the Christmas season, expresses that love in gifts and presents. In that sense, I told them, Santa Claus does exist even if he does not actually ride a flying sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, climb down chimneys with a bagful of presents and then disappear like the early mist on cold December mornings.
I had a sense that they were not entirely convinced about my argument but I am not worried too much about that. Time will pass and they too will grow up. Arguments like the one they had would soon no longer matter much to them except as part of the dim and lighthearted memories of their Christmases past.
Except when it would have to be their turn and unenviable task to explain to their young children who the gleeful, potbellied man in red astride the supercharged sleigh really is and how he came to be. Then they would have to settle arguments among the young ones and the not so young already as to whether he really actually exists or not.
By that time, I would rather, most definitely, not want to be in their shoes..... or Christmas socks.