Thursday December 27, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE

The good news is that my nine-year-old grandson still believes in Santa Claus. The bad news is that next year, he probably will have stopped believing. He already has some doubts, and some of his friends have told him there is no Santa. But a part of him still believes.

What makes me sad isn’t that he is moving away from his childhood belief in magic, but that there isn’t a way to protect him from some of the hard realities of life when the magic goes by the wayside. I tell him, I still believe in Santa. I am not being dishonest. In some ways, I do.

I know there are those who disagree with me -- who think encouraging belief in Santa is perpetuating a lie, who think Santa is a distraction from the real meaning of Christmas, a commercialized figure used by retailers to whip us into a frenzy of buying and spending. What I really believe about Santa Claus is that the magical and mysterious are as necessary to our lives as logic and reason.

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The fact that Santa Claus has survived so long, from pre-Christian times to now, indicates that we do need to hold onto certain beliefs even though they are not always rational. Santa began as a real person -- St. Nicholas, an early Greek Christian saint born in Lycia, Asia Minor around 270 AD, who became the bishop of Myra and was known for his love and generosity to children especially. Different countries developed their own versions of St. Nicholas and, over time, his character merged with the Dutch Sinterklaas and the British Father Christmas.

It took a while for Americans to embrace the idea of Christmas, and even longer for any version of Santa Claus to enter our holiday observation. Our Puritan forefathers had no interest in making merry, and enforced laws suppressing celebrating Christmas. Those laws were repealed in 1681, but revelry and gift-giving were still discouraged. For a long time, decorating the meeting house with greens was viewed as paganism.

Then, in 1821, Clement Clarke Moore published his poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" now known as "The Night Before Christmas" in the Troy Sentinel -- and the rest is history. The poem recognized the place of children in family life and society. Children were no longer seen as small adults whose role was to work. Childhood became an important stage of development and children were to be protected and sheltered and educated.

St. Nicholas became the jolly white-bearded fellow in a red suit, driving a reindeer-pulled sleigh filled with toys through the sky. He lives at the North Pole where he and his elves spend the year making toys to deliver on Christmas Eve. He still represents generosity and love for children, and is still viewed as their protector.

This Christmas, we need him more than ever.

In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father if Santa Claus was real. Like my grandson, she was starting to have doubts. Her father suggested she address her question to the New York newspaper, The Sun. "If you see it in The Sun," he told her, it’s so." One of the paper’s editors, Frances Pharcellus Church, wrote back to Virginia, and his answer has become reprinted more than any editorial in an English speaking newspaper.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."

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This Christmas there is no Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Madeleine F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison N. Wyatt. All of them were killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School 12 days ago, All of them probably believed in Santa Claus. They all deserved to be protected. More than a little bit of external light has been extinguished with those deaths.

We need to make sure that such a darkening never happens again by turning in weapons and ammunition that have no place in our homes, by insisting our legislators vote for stricter gun laws, by banning the purchase of assault weapons. Otherwise, our existence will not be tolerable.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.