Is Santa real?
You may have noticed that our summer sabbatical has lingered somewhat indefinitely. We’re not gone; we’re just doing some pondering on our own. But, we did want to share a reflection that was first published in this month’s edition of the Nashville monthly, NFocus. It’s about the jolly elf but really it’s about the nature of truth. I hope you take a moment from the mayhem to read and reflect on what you believe. And I hope that your holiday is full of jolly good cheer and the generosity of spirit that unites us all.
MY CHRISTMAS WARDROBE consists primarily of a red faux-vintage t-shirt I got from Target a few Decembers ago. It has a Santa face on it with the words “I Believe” written in bold cursive. I wear it Christmas morning and when we decorate our tree and at various festive gatherings throughout the season where children decorate cookies or adults steal presents from one another. The fit is too slim and the message cheesy, but it’s the message that I cherish the most. It’s the message that I want to remember and live by.
Years and years ago when I taught high school English, I invited my students to explore the varying natures of truth. Studying author Tim O’Brien, we discussed—and grappled with—“story truth” versus “happening truth.” At that time, happening truth included the fact that Hurricane Katrina had displaced more than a million people from the Gulf Coast region. Story truth proved a different beast altogether. Nonplussed by fact-checkers, story truth allows itself to be expressed by what is perceived, felt and imagined rather than by what has actually transpired. A young girl, separated from her family, survived the storm by clinging to a barrel in the swamp she called home. Story truth. Our heart goes out to her rather than the nameless millions. That’s because we humans are experts at story truth. We tell ourselves dreams while we sleep and relive memories. We watch movies about superheroes and eat up instagram feeds that fabricate perfect lives. We read US Weekly and watch “reality” TV that has nothing to do with reality. And yet, when it comes to believing, all of a sudden we want proof. As Mary Oliver writes, “Why do people keep asking to see God’s identity papers?” The darkness opening into morning is more than enough, she argues. O’Brien’s argument is that story truth is more true than happening truth. I tend to agree.
My husband has asked me on more than one occasion whether we’re going to come clean about Santa to our girls. These daughters of mine have often asked me the same question themselves: Mom, is Santa real? What do I say in response? There is an obvious answer, one that some would argue I owe my kids now that they’ve reached a certain age. Uttering the words they want me to say feels like a confession of guilt for supposedly lying all these years or the awful bursting of a bubble in order to come clean about the way life “really is.” Neither feels right or true to me. There’s another answer, though. It is a response rooted in the possibility that things don’t have to have happened explicitly to be real—on a soul level.
My own parents never told me outright that Santa isn’t real. (In fact, I still get tags signed by the jolly elf, and I know him pretty well by now: he’s as wondrous and as generous as they say he is.) I don’t much want to tell my daughters he isn’t real either, though it would make my life easier (and cheaper) to do so. That’s because, in vital ways for me, Santa is real. The story of him embodies the mirth and generosity of the season, a mirth and generosity that is alive in us and that extends out from us in the way we live and in the gifts we bring to the world. Good is possible; the unexpected is possible. There is cause for hope and putting out stockings.
When the happening world is too much, as it so often tends to be, the best thing we can do is believe. And when my children ask me tough questions about Santa, as they no doubt will continue to do, the best thing I can do is point to my bright red t-shirt and answer them honestly: I believe.