I must have been around seven, living in far northern Wisconsin—not classy Minoqua and other Chicago playgrounds, but the dregs of the timber industry, the swamps reserved for Natives, and rocky farmland left to the last immigrants, a place where the last snow might surprise you on the last day of school—when my dad sat us down and told us there was no Santa. It was very near Christmas, and the reason given was that there was no money for presents. Dad added, of course, that the true meaning of Christmas was Jesus’ birth, but that was no consolation at all. Santa was colored lights, glittering paper, frosted cookies, quick-step songs, and ornaments. Jesus was straw, barnyards, and bare poverty. We knew enough about that already.
I went to bed angry and rebellious that night and tried to fantasize Santa coming with reindeer on the rooftop, but it was ruined. The next day we had a small Christmas tree from the woods, but nothing else special.
Because everything about class seems to be over determined, there must have been other reasons for that blunt, kill-joy announcement. I think now that my parents could have made us something, some hand sewn little purse from scraps or a doll table from leftover wood, but maybe they were too overwhelmed with having had four kids in four years, no running water, no telephone, no TV. Maybe they were young and depressed and they could shield neither themselves nor their children from it. I often think of how many groups want to help and support needy children, but very few want to help their parents.
In the midst of all this, does Santa help? Joanne Faulkner, an Australian psychology professor, has argued that kids should not be told there’s a Santa in the first place, that it’s a lie that diminishes trust, pulls the rug out from under them. I, myself, have mixed feelings. Even at seven, I already knew Santa didn’t exist, but I wanted deniability. Santa was part of life’s magical potential along with going to college or travelling to Europe, a fairy tale, a myth, which, some argue, help us to imagine a way into our own future.
But not only that, poverty is isolating, and to believe in Santa was a way to connect with the larger society around us, to participate in the larger culture. To talk about Santa at school or even with grownups on the street was to play a role in a collective drama. True, Santa culture can be crassly commercial and even exploitative (paying ten dollars to stand in a long line and get your picture taken sitting on some stranger’s lap) but our real lives were often bleak and uncomfortable, especially in the monochromatic winter when, come January, it was cornmeal mush or oatmeal mush for breakfast, pea soup for dinner, bean soup for supper. Santa and candy and merry music were colorful and vivid. And according to Burl Ives, Santa cared. Didn’t the song on the radio clearly say, “he doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, he loves you just the same.”?
I never once believed Santa would bring me rich people’s gifts. I never believed reindeer would literally come down the chimney. For me, Santa was a license to dream. Presents might be expensive, but to sing about Santa was free and so were songs on the radio. Is it so bad for parents to hint at Santa, maybe without making it a huge deal, maybe saying there definitely once was a real Santa, a generous man who loaded up a sleigh with presents and brought them over the snow to all the children nearby. And even today there are generous people who share; there are lots of Santas. You can see them ringing bells and handing out gifts at parties. And perhaps, by some miracle, Santa comes down the chimney. Perhaps his reindeer fly in the night. Who knows? In any case, there is generosity and magic and room in the world for imagination.