Last night, while waiting for some friends in a local coffee house, I struck up a conversation with a mother and son. They were popping in to grab something warm and toasty to drink, on their way to the Christmas parade.
This isn’t my first rodeo, people. I know there’s one reason- and one reason alone- why droves of people would freeze their tail off for hours, after navigating the labyrinthine street closures to do so. So, I turned to the boy, about age eight, and asked him the all-important question.
“So, are you excited to see Santa in the Christmas parade?”
At this, the kid and his mother smirked at me, as if to say to one another “Oh, that poor differently-abled girl is right off her rocker”. Instead of that, however, the little boy says something much more insidious.
“I don’t believe in Santa,” he said flatly, as if I should know better than to ask him such a ridiculous question.
I looked to his mom, disbelieving in my own right, only for her to answer, “He knows.”
“Knows what?” I said.
“He’s not real,” the little boy said, a bit exasperated, “Santa’s not real.”
“What?!” I was thunderstruck by this revalation, “That’s impossible. I just talked to him yesterday! He has to be real.” [I had just had my photo taken the night before with Santa and the Missus. They told me I had been good that year-thankyouverymuch- and said they would see what they could do about getting me a good job with a nonprofit, which is what I asked for as a Christmas gift.]
The little kid and his mother, who continued to look at me with a mixture of pity and polite irritation, then proceeded to explain to me that Santa, as we know it, was based on Saint Nicholas, who was from the Netherlands, and is now dead. I was also informed that he made wooden toys.
The kid was part right. Western Santa is based on Sinterklass [who David Sedaris satirizes perfectly in his classic essay, “Six to Eight Black Men“].
But- unbeknownst to the pre-adolescent skeptic- before Sinterklass, there was Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nick was a Turkish bishop in the Orthodox Church, known for the far-reaching and secret nature of his generosity. He was also a miracle-worker, and was often known to use this spiritual gift to help people that were poor, or in otherwise great need.
The intellectual part of me understands that this man is not the same one in the mall, flanked with elves, listening to hordes of kids field their requests for X-Boxes and dirt bikes. But the rest of me wholeheartedly believes that Nicholas is with us in spirit, and that, even as he exists in the Western myth, he comes into prominence this time of year to remind us of something: the importance of true, unabashed childlike faith.
I read this great blog last night that I think hits the nail on the head. We hurry kids off to adulthood, and we get lost in it ourselves. There is nothing wrong with responsibility and maturity. But there is a problem when we encourage kids to dispense with faith, or when we rationalize it in our own lives.
Santa works for kids because kids have no problem with believing that something fantastic can be possible. The very faith that thrives in the heart of children and drives the magic of the Christmas holidays is the same one every Christian is called to (Matthew 18:3).
As much as I appreciate the dose of humility that comes with being condescended to by an eight-year-old, I found myself frustrated and disheartened, not so secretly hoping he would find enough coal to power a locomotive in his stocking. Not only was he being a bit of a punk. He was 0ff-base.
Look, kid. Just because you can’t see someone in body, does not mean they are not present with you in spirit. And just because it’s unable to be understood or explained, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Faith is greater than rationalism, it supersedes cynicism. It triumphs over doubt, intellect, and knowing best. For this reason, I will set out milk and cookies. I will pray with gratitude when I celebrate Nativity, and I will encourage wonder in the hearts of children and adults who cross my path.
Because faith is one of the hallmarks of Christmas Spirit. And though it is entrusted in a unique way to the children of each generation, I hope we all take time to guard and nurture the faith in our own hearts.