Growing up in a Catholic household, Christmas was heralded with much anticipation. An evergreen tree was carried into our living room and brightly adorned, Advent candles were ceremoniously lit, festive parties filled the calendar, stockings were hung on Christmas Eve, and there was always a visit to Santa Claus. Others might have donned him Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or Kris Kringle, but no matter we all slept assured of his Christmas Eve arrival bearing all the gifts we dared wish for. No matter what upheavals life might have in store, Santa was a given; on the backbone of that one universal truth, a childhood imagination solidly rested. Through one’s belief in Santa Claus, anything was possible. You could become an astronaut or a ballerina. Certainly you would find happiness.
Over the years, I became a parent and Santa & Mrs. Claus became part of our household traditions as the children waited with anticipation through the dreary December days for that one magical Christmas morning. Although no longer a Catholic, we chased away darkness by lighting candles, decorated cards and handcrafted gifts, and visited Santa when he came close enough via train. Despite the fact that there were many “American myths” I did not want for my children, such as believing McDonald’s provides a healthy or happy meal, or that a sea of plastic toys are better than fewer well-crafted wooden ones, I did allow Santa into their imagination. I am so glad I did. For in retrospect, I came to witness that Santa Claus isn’t about material goods or consumerism, but the power of believing in what you can’t see. Like hope. Faith. Like catching the dreams floating just above our reach. Santa is one tangible to grab onto when all seems impossible. And believing becomes even more important when other structures start to crumble around you. Like divorce or disease or worse.
For many years, as most young families must, we scraped together pennies to make a Christmas, and somehow, seeing the pile of gifts in that golden morning light, always felt magical. Year after year we stood in the same awe as the children and asked, how did it come together? Santa’s visit made magic visible in our farmhouse and on Christmas morning we were transported to someplace mystical. No matter what hardships came our way, there was never a question that Santa would come down the chimney, eat the cookies left for him, stomp about leaving a trail of ash and his precious gifts, and then write out a quick note before grabbing carrots for his hungry reindeer. Even now, with a houseful of grown children returning for the holidays, I can sense the power of believing in Santa Claus permeating the air as much as it did then.
For Christians the birth of Christ is the miracle: the center of this light-filled holiday. But the Christ is ethereal and mystical and in my view cloaked in difficult dogma for the young mind, however, by seeing their living rooms transported into their dreams, faith is made living. To me, varied traditions do not contradict one another, but instead reveal the reality that we all need to believe. We all need light during the dark days. Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, St. Nicholas Day, Winter Solstice all light our way out of despair. For a young child, these rituals form our ideology. They allow us to see what we can only feel.
My extended family, as many of you readers know, is large, and has a long tradition of gathering to make moments meaningful. There is a crowd at every turn in your life and Christmas is no different. This year we will only be 11 for Christmas dinner (missing several key members) but those coming will bring their piece to this family puzzle, their role in our wide ranks. Stemming from the original Daddy’ O and his eight, comes my mother with her zeal to love life. For her Christmas is being together: from start to end she is family. It is her infectious smile that can be seen through generations of us. Her faith is deeper than Santa Claus but he is certainly part of her mix, for she always made sure we knew to believe.
The Christmas holiday is a few short days to share laughter, with three generations under one roof, carrying on the traditions, like cookie making and eating, oh so much eating! But the tree surrounded by gifts, some of which appear overnight by a Santa Claus, continues still. Each year we look forward to making new traditions yet to be discovered, but within the same perimeter of giving, with love and support to make the hectic holiday travel worthwhile.
Believing in the magic of Santa Claus is at my core. Believing in what I know to be true but can’t quite prove. I am forever grateful to have been raised in a home where the abstract notion of hope was made concrete by a right jolly old elf. Let’s all make the magic continue… no matter your tradition, steal a bit of the believing this guy makes possible!