Saying Goodbye to Santa Claus

Spoiler Alert: Santa’s “Big Secret” revealed in this blog entry.

Exhibit One: Me with Santa Claus at home in the 1960s, proof positive that he exists.

Now that Santa has flown in, tucked gifts under trees both hither and yon, and headed back to the North Pole for some well-deserved R&R, I feel it’s time to take a look at one of America’s biggest myths and think about how it may have affected us as a nation…or not.

But first, in the spirit of the holiday season, I offer a nostalgic visit to my hometown in Massachusetts circa 1970. Picture plastic candles in each street-facing window and a lacquered pinecone wreath adorned with a festive red felt bow on the front door. If you peer in through the spray-on snow frosting the windows, you can see me carefully filling a plastic garbage bag with dozens of gifts. My parents watch, slightly puzzled but mostly silent, as I pull on my snow boots and mittens, then leave the house, bag slung over my shoulder.

A week or so earlier, I had learned a shocking truth that rocked my little world—a secret that had been kept by nearly every adult I had ever met. They had lied to me, these adults. People whom I had trusted entirely, including the local minister and my own parents, had taken part in an international conspiracy and perpetrated a myth, a fantasy, a fiction. The story included a conveniently distant setting, a saintly protagonist (whom I had met in person on several occasions), and a desirable plotline that evoked grand themes of peace, good will, and generosity. To cover their tracks, my parents had even planted evidence: sleigh bells jangled as sound effects in the wee hours of Christmas morning; cookie crumbs and half-drunk tumblers of milk left on the metal TV table set up alongside the chimney.

All of this was an elaborate scheme that blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction, between fantasy and reality. Young and gullible, I was easily duped. Of course there was a Santa. Of course reindeer flew. Why even question the physics of how, in one single night, a rather rotund man could pilot a craft to every single household around the world and leave presents for all the good boys and girls—and still have time to toss back some cookies and sip some milk in each abode?

In asking me to believe in such fantastic things, my parents taught me an important lesson that would be vital to my budding literary ambitions: how to suspend disbelief. In doing so, however, they taught a corollary lesson: how to suspend belief. In other words, in order to suspend my disbelief in Santa Claus, I also had to suspend my belief in many of the lessons learned in grade school (science, geography, math, etc.).

In some ways, then, the revelation that Santa Claus was a fabrication probably came as something of a relief to me. The dissonance between fantasy and fact, between what I was being told to believe and what I was learning to be true, lessened. That psychological summary may be a bit too deep to ascribe to an eight-year-old’s consciousness, so let me state it another way: Santa or no, the presents were still there on Christmas morning, and so all was well with the world.

Luckily for me, my parents didn’t serve up the revelation about Santa Claus with a simple “Sorry, kid, but that’s just the way it is.” They discussed the importance of symbolism and how this extended to the Santa myth, claiming that while Santa himself may not be real, the spirit of giving that he represents lives on in the hearts and souls of all those who have heard his story. Any fan of the famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” newspaper editorial might have accused my parents of plagiarism, but I could tell they were sincere.

Still: Such power in a fictional tale! Suddenly, my dreams of becoming a fiction writer one day became a vastly more important, almost religious endeavor. See how the power of a story, even a fictional story like Santa Claus, could have such great positive effect on the real human world!

And so I headed off into the night with my makeshift Santa sack. Inside I had placed carefully wrapped toys and books for the kids, and on the second and third winters’ visits, some ribbon candy for the adults in each household. I carried on the tradition until, one year, something unexpected happened. Some families had wrapped and readied gifts and treats for me. Somewhat embarrassed by their assumption that I expected something in return, I ended the Christmas Eve tradition that same year.

For years, I forgot about this bit of personal history. I was recently reminded of it by an article about a Vermont teacher accused of being unprofessional and irresponsible for spilling the beans about Santa in a fifth-grade classroom. The teacher had asked students to list names of famous people in American history. In order to keep the lesson focused on facts, the teacher felt compelled to leave figures such as Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, and Santa Claus off the list. (I could not tell from the article if she allowed the also-mentioned Jeff Foxworthy and Justin Bieber to remain on the list, but that’s another discussion for another time.)

(The full article is here:

http://www.reformer.com/ci_19576402?IADID=Search-www.reformer.com-www.reformer.com)

The mother who raised the “unprofessional” and “irresponsible” charges against the teacher went on to say that teaching about Santa Claus was like teaching about religion: the topic is best set aside with recommendations to ask one’s parents about such things. That seems fair enough…until I thought about the goals of education in general.

Since a good part of my day job (writing and editing educational materials) relies on the various state standards developed by school boards (many of them quite conservative) around the country, I know that “learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality” is a pretty important benchmark in the lower grades. (Keep in mind that the instance noted above took place in a fifth-grade classroom.) In other words, children are required to differentiate between nonfiction and fiction (fairy tales, myths, legends, and the like). Teachers are required to provide students with the skills and strategies to do this. By fifth grade, then, your average American student should have the reasoning skills to figure out the Santa thing on her/his own. Any parent who disagrees risks spotlighting their children as slow learners—perhaps along with themselves.

According to research done by psychiatrists at Ithaca College and Cornell University in the 1990s, the average American child learns the truth about Santa at age 7 1/2. However, after interviewing 500 elementary-school children, they discovered that “Many children kept up the charade after they knew the truth…because they did not want to disappoint their parents.”

Parents, take a moment to reflect one the meaning of that last clause (no pun intended). Your kids may be duping you into believing that they still believe in Santa. I think back on my own behavior as a pseudo-Santa and wonder if that was, in some warped way, an effort to turn the lies my parents had told me into truths…ergo, my parents had not lied to me after all.

Further, Dr. John Condry, one of the authors of the Ithaca/Cornell study, reported, “Not a single child told us they were unhappy or upset by their parents having lied about Santa Claus. The most common response to finding out the truth was that they felt older and more mature. They now knew something that the younger kids didn’t.”

(You can read more about the study here:
http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/21/garden/parent-child.html?pagewanted=2&src=pm)

This finding surprised me. “Not a single child”? Parents, take another moment to think about telling your child that he or she cannot have a toy or candy bar that he or she has already selected while you were shopping at the grocery store. When you took the item away, was your child calm and well-mannered about it? Or was the response similar to those submitted for a recent Jimmy Kimmel spot in which the talk show host asked parents to tell their children, “Hey, sorry, I ate all your Halloween candy.” (Permissions permitting, the videotaped results of this rather non-academic study are here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/jimmy-kimmels-ate-halloween-candy-challenge_n_1074334.html)

In a 2006 opinion piece in the New York Times, Jaqueline Woolley wrote, “Children do a great job of scientifically evaluating Santa. And adults do a great job of duping them. As we gradually withdraw our support for the myth, and children piece together the truth, their view of Santa aligns with ours. Perhaps it is this kinship with the adult world that prevents children from feeling anger over having been misled.” What is this “kinship with the adult world” of which Woolley writes? Is it the tacit understanding that adults lie, and that it is OK for them to lie (or “support a myth”) on a grand scale?

(The link to the Woolley article is here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/23/opinion/23woolley.html?_r=1&oref=slogin)

Surely someone sees this Santa thing differently. For balance, I turned to a group whose opposition to myths and distortions is part and parcel of their identity: the objectivists. This group is huge these days with Republicans and the Tea Party, both of which have renewed a fervent interest in the writings of Ayn Rand, particularly as it applies to self-determination and self-interest. Surely, the somewhat socialist “give liberally to the poor children of the world” Santa myth (I base that description on the story’s historical roots in relation to Saint Nicholas, who, by the way, was also the patron saint of pawnbrokers) would be anathema to such a group. And it is.

According to Andrew Bernstein, a senior writer of the Ayn Rand Institute, “”Santa Claus is, in literal terms, the anti-Christ. He is about joy, justice, and material gain, not suffering, forgiveness, and denial.” Another quote from the article: “The commercialism of Christmas, its emphasis on ingenuity, pleasure, and gift buying, is the holiday’s best aspect—because it is a celebration, the achievement of life.”

(You can read the full piece, a celebration of the commercialism of Christmas, here:
http://www.aynrand.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=1263&page=NewsArticle&id=7632)

All of this leaves me as puzzled about Santa Claus as I was when I learned the dark secret of his nonexistence. To this day, I give presents that have “From Santa” scrawled on the tag, and I try to mask my own handwriting despite the fact that the recipients know they’re from me. Likewise, I love surprise presents: gifts that appear out of the blue from anonymous sources, those random acts of kindness that rekindle our faith in human generosity. (Special kudos to Ben and Jerry’s for a coupon they once published that granted a free ice cream cone to the person in line behind you at one of their scoop shops. Brilliant.)

The spirit of Santa lives on and is no lie. It survives despite the increases in greed and entitlement—both running rampant through our society today, malignant cancers that question and threaten human compassion and generosity. I’d even argue that the spirit of Santa, despite its secularization over the decades, also maintains its ties to the spirits of nearly every religion, even those that claim independence from mythology or dogma.

In the years ahead, perhaps we can pull that spirit back from fiction and establish it fully as year-round fact. After all, nearly every child longs for Santa to be more than a seasonal fantasy. Maybe it is up to the child within us adults to make it so.

Postscript: I dedicate this blog entry to my father (pictured above as Santa) who passed away in 2011 and was very dearly missed this Christmas season. His many gifts to me continue to resonate throughout my life.

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Cursing the Darkness

"Better than Cursing" - a self-portrait from sometime back in the 1980s, when I was experimenting with my first SLR camera.

“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

   Around this solstice, when the nights are at their longest, the quote above provides a rich opportunity for reflection. Derived from a Chinese proverb, the quote eventually became the motto of a group called the Christopher Society in 1945. Their mission statement directs the group to “to encourage people of all ages, and from all walks of life, to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference in the world.” Years later, Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, alluded to the proverb during a Human Rights Day ceremony in 1961. The saying most likely inspired the group’s current logo, a single candle entwined within barbed wire. Most famously, perhaps, the proverb was paraphrased by Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after her death in 1962. “I have lost more than a beloved friend,” Stevenson said. “I have lost an inspiration. She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”
   We’ve heard many references to light, warmth, and “that special glow” during the holidays. They figure prominently in nearly every secular and religious celebration of the season. Likewise, we’ve also endured a fair share of quips and criticisms of those same sentiments. These aren’t entirely without merit, especially given the escalation of consumerism (and its twin sibling, capitalism) in American culture. You could argue throughout the entire long night over whether to call December 25 Christmas, Xmas, or ¢hri$tma$. Some people seem to make good money doing just that on the cable news networks. For them, it seems, Shakespeare was a prescient pundit when he wrote the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
   For many Americans, this is indeed a winter of discontent. Some find themselves in dire circumstances unexpectedly and unwillingly; others seem determined to foster ill will and contempt as if to spite those in search of a spark in the darkness. Cynicism has infected the populace, manifested most conspicuously by vocal members of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Our political leaders, present and possibly future, bicker and argue, preferring to snipe at one another in an effort to score points rather than work together on real solutions to the day’s problems. Even literature and music, once places of refuge and sanctuary for me, have become overloaded with sass and snark. (More on this phenomenon in subsequent blog entries.)
   In short, we find ourselves in dark times. What I wish for most of all this holiday season is a cultural solstice of sorts, a return to what truly matters in our lives. For me, this requires action and education on all our parts, the opposites of laziness and ignorance. We should be fostering community and passionate discourse, not demonizing one another and trading cheap shots in some petty game of one-upsmanship. We should, in short, illuminate one another’s lives, and reflect the light cast on us by others in the spirit of giving back and returning favor.
   In closing, I offer up this quote from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. I’d prefer to change the word “armour” to “vestments,” but who am I to edit the work of countless translators and editors before me? I chanced across the line while doing research for this post. Then, when I went to verify the wording in my own Bible, the book opened directly to the proper page. Make of that what you will.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. (Romans 13:12)

Touching the Nerve: Taking on “Tebow Time”

[Music cue:] Sound effect from “127 Hours,” just as Aron Ralston is about to slice the blade of his knife across the exposed nerve on his self-severed arm.

   Over the years, I’ve learned that the best subjects to write about are the ones that touch nerves, and nothing seems to be touching nerves these days quite like the “miraculous” comebacks staged by the Denver Broncos. Strong feelings, pro and con, have led to strongly worded commentaries in the media and threatened to fracture friendships across the country. Obviously, it’s a topic worth taking on.
   For those not familiar with football, the Broncos are the current leaders in the AFC West after having been dismissed by the pigskin pundits as a longshot for the playoffs. That was before rookie quarterback Tim Tebow took over the starting star position and led the team to win seven of its last eight games in clutch situations. Tebow is most widely known for his overt religious beliefs, which has led him to inscribe Bible verse references under his eyes during games, appear in an anti-abortion advertisement last year, and kneel down in prayer frequently during games to beg Jesus Christ for assistance. Tebow is also known for his rather mediocre NFL passing statistics coupled with a strong preference for holding on to the ball and running to make plays by himself.
   As a person, Tim Tebow appears to be a natural leader. He has done an extraordinary amount of charitable work in his life to date—far more, most likely, than either his most vocal critics or advocates. His performance as a college quarterback made him a worthy recipient of numerous awards. In short, he seems like a pretty decent guy, especially in the company of his peers. He’s not working on a criminal rap sheet, not being caught in scandalous romances, and not making weekly headlines for trash-talking about his opponents.
   So why all the hullaballoo? It’s not who Tim Tebow is; it’s what he stands for. With that in mind, let me make one thing clear at the outset: I’m talking about “Tebow Time” here, not Tim Tebow himself. This is a classic case of a public schism between man and myth, self and symbol, fact and fiction, and, in some ways, between reality and fantasy. No wonder it’s got so many people ticked off.
   Americans, like many folks around the world, love their myths and legends. People are willing to twist history into a desired narrative in order to explain the currently inexplicable, maintain the established order, or justify unproveable beliefs.  Over the weekend, I noticed a number of commentators using the words “script” and “narrative” to describe how, yet again, the Denver Broncos were trailing in the final minutes of a game and somehow, miraculously (there’s that word again), won a game. According to an account I read this morning, Tim Tebow won the game against the Bears with two crucial field goals: one in the fourth quarter and one in overtime.
   Of course, a writer/editor craves accuracy and specifics, so I must stop here to point out that Tim Tebow did not kick the tying or the winning field goal. He’s a quarterback, remember? But here’s the first thing about “Tebow Time”: For many people, it’s all about Tim Tebow. People desperately want it to be all about Tim Tebow. Why? Because to a great extent, American myths and legends are about individuals, not collectives. How many times have you heard this line in a movie: “You’re the only one who can save us.” From “The Matrix” to “Avatar,” this messianic streak is alive and well in American culture. You could argue that it matches the political tenor of the times: rooting for a collective team (of Muppets, let’s say, just to cite a most recent critique) seems, at its core, suspiciously socialist. So, let’s foreground Tebow and background the Broncos for the creation of this particular gridiron myth.
   This creates an immediate problem. As a quarterback in most games, Tebow’s performance has been sub-par. Just look at the statistics and compare them to any other quarterback playing the game today, rookie or not. Few people seem to be suggesting, however, that God or Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost is motivating Broncos kicker Matt Prater, who scores so many of the “miraculous” winning points. In most accounts of the Broncos phenomenon, I’m sorry to say, Matt’s been a footnote. (Though I must point out, the poet in me craves a “Pray for Prater” campaign.)
   So at the outset, a little bit of dissonance creeps into the picture, but let’s just ignore that for now. (If this is going to be a truly American myth we’re creating here, we’ll have to ignore the inconvenient facts for a while.) Instead, let’s consider that the Broncos are always a come-from-behind team, which makes them the underdogs in nearly every game. Despite its current standing as the #1 nation in the world, Americans love to consider themselves outsiders and underdogs. Who knows why; they just do. More on that in some future blog entry.
   As come-from-behinders, Tebow and the Broncos always appear to be beating the odds. The “lamestream” media can make all the predictions they want; “Tebow Time” is all about pulling it out in the clutch. And if this is God’s plan, as Tebow fanatics would have us believe, it leaves a few uncomfortable questions. First of all, why does God let so many of Tim Tebow’s passes miss the mark? Why do the Broncos fall behind in nearly every game? Why is God such a tease? Why does God’s will always seem to necessitate and instance of dumb luck? If Tim Tebow is truly representative of divine forces on Earth, why did God not anoint a better quarterback? Why, for example, is there no halo around Aaron Rodger’s head? If there’s any argument to be made for true grace and strength in football these days, the holy land would be in Green Bay, Wisconsin (even if, technically, the Bronco’s Mile-High Stadium is closer to heaven).
   One of the likely appeals of “Tebow Time,” however, is that Tim Tebow looks like a regular joe. Aaron Rogers used to have that look, but these days too much has been made of his swagger and confidence for him to satisfy the casting call for common-man hero. Instead, we have the narrative of the previously down-and-out Denver Broncos being led to victory by a back-up quarterback without any glitzy or glamorous advertising contracts (yet). The fact that some people question his skills and abilities just makes him more like us. After all, it was no miracle that Eli Manning scored two touchdowns against the favored Cowboys to win in the final minutes of the Sunday night game. You expect that from a Manning. But a Tebow? Nah, he’s not one of the “elite.” He’s one of us. His wins are, in a word, all the more “miraculous” because of that. We can relate to that. If it were you or me on that field on Sunday, we’d need a miracle to pull off a win as well.
   By definition, a miracle is something out of the ordinary, something unexpected or unprecedented. When people rhapsodize about “Tebow Time,” they often suggest that they’ve never seen anything like this before. But let’s again look back on American mythology. We have seen this before. In fact, in hard economic times, we see it time and time again. Consider James Braddock, the supposedly down-and-out boxer from the 30’s whose inspirational rise to the championship became a national fixation during the Great Depression.  Or Seabiscuit, the odds-against underhorse who likewise inspired hope in the odds-against masses of the Depression. In more recent times, I’d even mention the post-9/11 New England Patriots with their own fresh-from-the-bench backup in the lead, Tom Brady. In all of these cases, America latched on to an underdog, finding hope in those who rose despite serious adversity.
   But wait a moment. I may have gone a step too far here. Oh, those beloved Patriots of old, who refused to be introduced as individuals in Super Bowl XXXVI, instead staying true to their claims of being “a team.” They were up against the clearly favored St. Louis Rams, led by a man as God-fearing then as Tim Tebow is today: Kurt Warner. And lo, the Rams lost. In the final moments. By a field goal. Dear God.
   I’m not writing this to sing the praises of kickers like Adam Vinatieri, though I certainly could after that clutch kick. I’m writing this because writers like narratives, and the current Denver Broncos story is one of today’s most talked-about examples. But like many writers, I question narratives that distract from the central questions, whether those questions be of the narratives themselves or the contexts in which those narratives occur. And with “Tebow Time,” the central question seems to be about the positive influence of Christianity in major-league athletics.
   My argument is simple: It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. People wouldn’t be risking careers and friendships if it were that simple. On any given Sunday (great movie, by the way), professional athletes praise their Almighty and point to the sky all the time after a great play. Keep in mind that a fair number of darn good pro football players are Muslims, by the way. Oh, how this narrative would play out differently if Tim Tebow were praising Allah and facing Mecca after every victory.
   But something in America, nearly all of America, craves a new hero these days. We’re looking for someone like us, facing oppressive challenges and persevering despite dominant adversaries. With the political and economic outlooks both bleak, we want a light in the darkness. We want reassurance, an optimistic narrative, an uplifting myth. Some may turn to movies and music, others to fiction and poetry. Others will look to the stadium on winter’s Saturdays and Sundays.
   Even so, some Americans don’t want that dream to have a religious prerequisite. They don’t want it to have political or financial prerequisites, either. We’d prefer that it take place on that mythological “level playing field,” especially as so many other myths seem to be crumbling around us.
   This seems to get at the heart of the “Tebow Time” narrative. With “Tebow Time,” there is no level playing field. If we take that myth at face value, then no amount of skill, talent, spirit, or grace will help you win in the end. After all, Tim is the Chosen One. He is the only one who can save us all. The health and survival of America’s entire professional sports conglomerate depends on that one person.
   If you mistake that myth for reality, then God help us, every one.