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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Seeing Him in 2014

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This year our youngest daughter turned eight, and as her older sisters are busy with other things and her mother has been working, it's been mostly me who has spent time with her, reading Christmas books (J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters From Father Christmas is the new favorite this year) and watching all the essentials. A few days ago she told me about a friend at school who told her "Santa Claus is fake," and wanted to know what I thought. I told her the truth, of course: Santa Claus is real. She wanted assurance, and wrote him a letter, asking if he was real or not. I happen to have an advance copy of what Santa wrote back, which I share with his permission with you all here:

Dear Kristen,

You write that one of your friends has told you that I am fake. I appreciate you asking me yourself! Unfortunately, to answer that question, I have to ask you: which “I” are you wanting to know about? Because I am very old, and I have been--and continue to be--many things, as many different things as there are stories about me! Before I was Santa Claus or Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, I was Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. I am also the Christkindl, the Three Wise Men, La Befana, Julenisse, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Babushka, Jólnir, Grandfather Frost, and many more! I began as a normal human being, but have long since left that behind. I guess you might say I am a sort of angel now (only no wings!).

Do I deliver every present given to every child every Christmas morning, or perform every good deed done every day of the whole Christmas season? No, I don’t (that’s too much even for me!). But, through the many people I have been and continue to be, I help miracles to happen. I think this is why God keeps me going--not just because I can sometimes give presents to good girls like you, but because the mystery and legends and surprises about me inspire others to give presents to and serve those they love as well. And that includes you, and the gifts you give to your friends! So you are one of my helpers this Christmas, and thus have become part of the whole Christmas story. So the next time one of your friends tells you Santa Claus is fake, you should ask them: “Do you think I’m fake too?” Because anyone who thinks I am “just a story,” doesn’t see that God wants us all to be part of the whole, huge story of Christmas, and that story is real. And as long as that story is, so am I.

Much love, Santa

(Dictated to Ilbereth)

In looking over this letter which I was fortunate enough to receive in time to deliver tomorrow morning, I remembered a post I wrote exactly ten years ago today: "Seeing Him." I've shared it with a few people a few times over the years, as I think it is one of the better, truer things I've ever written. I probably wouldn't write it the same way today (I think I would be nicer about the "Yes, Virginia" letter if I did it again), but that's no reason to change the past, I think, especially since I still basically believe in all. So here it is, for whatever it's worth:


Most of the people reading this blog, I assume, don't believe in Santa Claus. I can understand: the evidence for his existence is scanty, as far as these things go; the (perhaps traumatic) revelations and/or realizations of one's youth--whether via friends, parents, annoying relatives or one's own snooping--have in all likelihood not been countered by any authoritative source; and your own experience probably confirms his continued non-existence. So really, I understand where you're coming from.

I happen to be a believer in Santa Claus--or rather, a believer in the existence a Santa Claus-type agent, perhaps multiple ones. My dad actually called us older kids aside one day when I was about eight, and solemnly informed us there was no Santa. I said I didn't think he was right, and I still don't. No, I'm not saying this ironically, and no, I'm not going to haul out "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" and take the Santa-dwells-within-us-all line. I actually believe that some sort of supernatural, possibly divine, Santa Claus-Father Christmas-Weihnachtsmann-St. Nicholas-Grandfather Frost-Ghost of Christmas Present figure is present and doing his work over the holidays. No, I've never seen him, and I'm not sure what his work is--plainly, he doesn't in fact deliver toys to every single child (or even just every good child, or every good child who happens to celebrate Christmas) every year, at least not if our family is any indication. But yet I find it hard to believe that something isn't out and about this time of year, the same way I find it hard to accept reductive (whether economic or psychological) explanations of the religious impulse generally. Of course, I believe in such irrational things as a God who sends His gifts and agents out amongst us regularly too, though I've never seen any of them either, and have no idea what they do or why they don't do what I wish they would. There's plenty of cause for existential despair, that's for certain. Still, if so many people feel something so strongly, and so much of that which hinges upon those feelings cannot be obviously accounted for--an anonymous gift, a helpful stranger, a happy coincidence, a fortunate find--it just doesn't strike me as implausible to adopt naive belief, in the sense of Paul Ricoeur's "second naiveté," rather than "mature critique" as a response.

I don't consider myself a man of strong faith, but as I once wrote elsewhere:

"I've tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn't pretend to myself that I didn't believe, that I didn't suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it....Certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it is residing somewhere....What I'm describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree....[Yet] I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn't something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he 'knew nothing'). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or Verstehen...[or of] King Solomon's wisdom, which the Old Testament record curiously [describes] not only as knowledge, but as 'largeness of heart'--which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others' claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said as well."

So, I believe in Santa, and Melissa goes along (though she thinks my philosophical reflections on that belief are taking a good thing too far). What do we do in our home? We buy presents and give them to our girls of course, setting some aside as from Santa. Does that display hypocrisy on my part? No, because we try not to nail down in their imaginations the specificity of transactions on Christmas Eve. We don't particularly encourage their belief in the dominant, rather materialistic Santa Claus account (factory at the North Pole, the latest toys being pumped out by elves night and day, etc.), and we definitely try not to get sucked into all the (too easily corporatized) tropes of that account--Santa at the mall, e-mail accounts, and all the rest. If and when one of the girls--the oldest of whom is now eight--ask me, "Did Santa bring this particular present?" I'll tell them what happened. But I'm not going to tell them there's no Santa. The fact that he may not have, and may not ever, come down our chimney doesn't mean I know that nothing ever comes down any child's chimney anywhere on Christmas Eve. That would run against too strong a feeling to the contrary--a feeling that is both very old and very widespread.

Of course, for some others, who might like to be naive (if only at Christmastime), the fact that there are and have been so many different gift-givers, doing so many different things at different times and in different ways across Christendom--the Three Kings, the Christkindl, Sinterklaas, La Befana, and more--may seem an impediment to believing. But again, I don't really get this. As I implied above, I consider myself basically a philosophical realist; I don't think perspectivalism goes all the way down. But hermeneutics is, fundamentally, a realistic endeavor; it denies nothing about the text to think carefully about the, shall we say, "spirit" in which a text is seen and received. And that's the point, really: seeing what's there is so much a function of our receptivity to that which may be seen. Is that the same as saying "believing is seeing"? No, because it's not that straightforward: Linus's belief in the Great Pumpkin didn't create a Great Pumpkin. But if the stories and folkways and prayers of millions of people over centuries of time have included seeing something in common at Christmastime, even if there is disagreement over what exactly it was that they saw . . . well, that strikes me as a pretty good case for not allowing cultural criticism and rational maturity to reductively strip reality entirely away. Seeing is feeling too, after all.

I've heard some believers criticize the wonderful carol, "Some Children See Him" because it makes the birth of the world's Savior "relative." He doesn't look different depending on who sees Him!, is their refrain. What silliness. Such a believers are simple, Cartesian empiricists; they have accepted the idea that every belief must turn on an objective sight. But what we are prepared to see, what we are receptive to seeing, and what we feel when we see it, ultimately matters much, much more, I think, which is why the lyrics of this quaint Christmas hymn, as cloyingly liberal as they may be, are utterly appropriate to the holiday:

Some children see Him lily white
The infant Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white
With tresses soft and fair

Some children see Him bronzed and brown
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair

Some children see Him almond-eyed
This Savior whom we kneel beside
Some children see Him almond-eyed
With skin of yellow hue

Some children see Him dark as they
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray
Some children see Him dark as they
And, ah, they love Him so

The children in each different place
Will see the Baby Jesus' face
Like theirs but bright with heav'nly grace
And filled with holy light

O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant King
'Tis love that's born tonight

Merry Christmas, everyone. Best wishes for a happy holiday. Close your eyes, listen to the skies, and all those good things.

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