Notes on Santa

by Jeff Oaks

It’s hard work to think about someone else. I’m usually irritated when someone says that no one can ever understand another person’s mind, but I have to admit that Christmas provides good evidence for that notion. I don’t think Santa Claus was invented in order to fool children, but to provide a third party candidate for children to tell the truth to, the way they sometimes will not (or dare not) be frank with family or each other. He’s a reason to have children write lists of what they want, which of course parents need nowadays, now that we’ve committed to treating children like people, so they have some idea of their own child’s desires. The parent who helps the child to write it or promises to mail it for the child learns, I suspect, a lot of things he or she might not have learned directly.

It seems likely that it’s Santa’s distance, the child’s notion that he’ll never meet him that helps the child to feel safe about telling the truth. And it might explain why some children start screaming when they finally meet the man, are forced to sit on his lap, stare into the mirrored glass of his glasses, and are asked to repeat what it is they wanted, as at an interrogation. Who is more frightening than the smiling man who knows all your secrets? The wealthy man who laughs too much? Any big man in arterial-blood-red cloth, black leather, and the fur of otherwise invisible predatory animals? His face itself is half-hidden in a beard that may or may not be real. Around him are invariably a collection of gigantic sacks full of sealed boxes the size of children’s coffins.

As long as he stays up at the North Pole, he’s an idea like the police are: you want someone to be in charge of justice but you never want to actually talk to him. Meeting the man disrupts the illusions about time and space that his existence depends on. Meeting the man as a physical being, a being who proves to be an complicated mix of Pope, Circus Clown, Drunk Uncle, and Plantation Boss, any child whose dealings with adults has made him or her distrustful will immediately realize he or she’s in danger of being entrapped by the very people he or she has had to rely on, about to be tricked into confessing to desires he or she may now be abandoned for. Lifting a child up and throwing him or her onto Santa’s lap can be from that nervous child’s point of view shattering, the way being thrown out of a moving trunk into a wilderness would be to the unwanted puppy. An arctic doubt never again leaves the child’s nervous system.

What a relief to find out that he’s a sham, that one has been returned to a simpler world, where one only has to understand one’s own weird family members. The Easter Bunny vanishes in a burst. The tooth-fairy. A variety of characters. The world gets suddenly less mysterious and more pointed, except in dreams where everything, from coal and diamonds, get delivered by invisible means, to the sound of strange hooves and laughing, shapeshifting saints who use chimneys like elevators. We learn to forgive our poor parents who lied to us, the smell of their own milk and cookies on their breath.