Santa Claus was almost Gospel truth in my family. All the questions about him that occurred to me over my early years just hung out there in the blue unknown for my first eight or nine years. I kept these inconsistencies and improbabilities about Santa to myself. After all, I saw him in person every Christmastime at Heer’s Department Store on the Public Square in Springfield, Missouri. He looked almost exactly like the Santa on the Coca-Cola holiday ads. He was as appealingly rotund as a winesap apple. I loved the merry twinkle in his eyes, his rosy cheeks and his grandfatherly white beard. My rationale was that someone must have seen Santa and used him as a model for the Coca-Cola poster. The same look-alike listened to children’s wishes every year at Heer’s, so he must be an inexplicable, magical character. Yet, I never wanted to meet him or tell him what I wanted for Christmas. I was afraid that he knew when I had been bad and I didn’t want to be exposed in public. Consequently, I was conflicted in my feelings about Santa Claus. I loved his generosity Christmas morning, but I had no desire whatsoever to encounter him in person.
I couldn’t understand my mother’s irritation once when I asked her about the doll-size aqua crocheted skirt I accidentally came across in her bedroom. I think she implied that I’d been snooping, which was unfair, considering that I was completely innocent. But I didn’t say a word when the same skirt appeared on my Shirley Temple doll Christmas morning.
Rumors about Santa’s not being real began to circulate among my classmates in the second, then the third grade. I dismissed them at first because I wanted so much to believe in Santa Claus as a supernatural being that existed in my world. Gradually, however, without being told, I accepted the reality. I was so disillusioned that Christmas never seemed as thrilling as it used to be until I became a parent.
A friend told me that when her son reached a certain age, her husband and she decided to reveal the secret of Santa’s identity. The following year when this boy wrote his annual letter to Santa, he addressed it to, “Dear Fraud.”
When my husband and I had children, I continued my family’s tradition of Santa Claus at Christmas. One of our children’s neighborhood friends had had an upsetting experience that fortunately didn’t seem to bother our two. An organization like the Lions Club or the Kiwanis had created a festive bower of pine boughs on the main street of old Rockville, where a person dressed like Santa sat inside and greeted every child who passed. Unfortunately, 5-year old Keith told us with eyes wide from fear, “I’m not going in his lair.” No amount of parental persuasion convinced him that this Santa wasn’t a monster. His family had to avoid downtown Rockville until the “lair” was dismantled after Christmas.
Santa’s elves didn’t have such an important part of my childhood Christmases. They seem to have been promoted over the years since then. Now, elves in green tights and tunics skip alongside Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, handing out candy canes to the crowds in every Christmas parade I’ve attended, whether it’s in Maryland, California or North Carolina. And speaking of Santa’s world, the moment The Polar Express, an award-winning children’s picture book, was first published, I knew it would become the perfect Santa Claus book for all times and all ages. The poignant ending often brings tears to readers’ eyes. While the film is a fine adaptation, the book has become a classic on its own merits, and one not to be missed. Elves at work in Santa’s workshop look believably commonplace, making toys. I heard of one child’s comment Christmas morning, “The elves did a really good job on my new bike.”