The way my mother tells it, I was extraordinarily upset to find out that Santa Claus is a well-intentioned myth.
I was four or five years old, and my parents allowed me to open all my presents on Christmas Eve, so that my father could work Christmas Day and earn time-and-a-half for the holiday. When I ran upstairs in the morning, thinking that Santa had come, I was (apparently) hysterical to find out that it was all a lie.
I don’t remember any of this. Clearly, it was a very traumatic experience.
Like most myths, Santa Claus is essentially a bribe for children to be good, by whatever standards the parents see fit. That said, no matter how many times my 9-year-old brother, whom I affectionately call JakeMonster, expresses his love by hitting me with whatever implement of destruction that is nearest, he has never received coal in his stocking (as he should, in my opinion).
The myth of Santa Claus is really a lovely one, though, if you are still innocent enough to believe. To believe that a jolly old man with a white beard who lives at the North Pole flies a sleigh full of toys on Christmas Eve and delivers obscene amounts of presents to all the children in the world who are good is to truly believe in the goodness of humanity. It requires a beautiful guilelessness and naiveté.
Being burdened by the intricacies and repetition of everyday life, as an adult, means frequently forgoing the delights of innocent wonder for more pragmatic pursuits. Utility bills and apartment rent and car repairs and work aren’t always the stuff of which dreams are made. But the holiday season, which at least around here is certainly the most dreary weather-wise, is a time to set aside those concerns and experience the world with fresh eyes of youthful awe.
The “spirit of Christmas” requires a childlike wonder. And we adults manufacture that spirit through the propagation of the Santa Claus myth to children. And then we go about creating a magical world filled with sparkly lights, shiny stars, snow, sleigh rides and evergreen trees.
I put my own little Christmas tree up before Thanksgiving, and yes, there are presents under it. Christmas is the ultimate rationalization of the shopping and consumer culture in which we all participate, and I love shopping. But it’s OK because it’s Christmas and I’m buying gifts for my family and friends.
Christmas spirit, or holiday spirit or whatever particular idioms you choose to describe the season, is set apart from religious observance. The Puritans even banned the celebration of Christmas for 22 years in the 17th century. Whatever you observe, whether in the birth of a God-sent savior or the lunar winter solstice, culturally, we put aside more prosaic affairs in order to make a leap of faith. Every year, I want to believe in Sana Claus because it means recapturing a less jaded version of myself.
Children are more perceptive than I think most give them credit for. My brother, the aforementioned JakeMonster, is often insightful enough to injure me with words even more than the stuffed animal attacks do. Even if he knows me and my parents are lying about Santa Claus, I know that he will be jumping on me at 6 a.m. Christmas morning begging me to get out of bed to open presents, because for those few precious moments every year, it doesn’t matter if Santa Claus is really real or just a myth. What matters is the faith that he could maybe possibly be real.
Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.