Growing Up In Gaithersburg

Santa Claus

By Marien Helz

I always thought of Santa Claus as a cultural figure rather than a religious one. He's associated with fun and joy and, of course, getting presents. Believing that someone could come down a chimney just to give you something, and want to give you something just because you exist, was a source of wonder.

My father always said that he had never wanted to lie to us, so he didn’t want to lie and tell us that there was a Santa Claus. He was clearly ambivalent about it, however, because he never made any effort to ensure that no one else told us the Santa stories. Naturally, we always got some presents that my mother signed as being from Santa Claus. In addition, on one Christmas he challenged us to try to prove that Santa Clause was real. He had us put a bench by the chimney with a towel and water as well as cookies and milk on it. In the morning, the food was gone, and the towel was black—he had rubbed the towel along the pipes in the basement to make it look really black as though from the chimney.

When we were adults, my sister, who became a psychiatrist, talked about her colleagues speculating that not letting children believe in Santa Claus was depriving them of having a fantasy life. She and I both felt, however, that Santa Claus was not the children’s fantasy—it was a myth told to them as though it were real. With my own children, I didn't want to tell them all about something that I would have to later tell them didn’t exist. I decided to get around that by saying to my daughter at her first cognizant Christmas when she was twenty-two months old that we like to pretend that Santa Claus comes down the chimney and brings presents and rides through the sky with eight reindeer. Even though she wouldn’t know what pretend meant, I felt that I could let Mr. Rogers and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood take care of that.

A year or so later, she mentioned Santa Claus, and I asked her how Santa Claus got into the house—down the chimney? I queried. Through the door, she informed me. I advised her that the door was always locked at night, so that might be difficult. She didn’t want to talk about it.

I forgot to be as careful about the Tooth Fairy as I had about Santa, though. A friend of hers had gotten a note written by the Tooth Fairy as well as a few coins when she lost her first tooth, and, charmed by the idea, I put notes from the Tooth Fairy under my daughter’s pillow with coins as she lost her teeth. She was talking about the Tooth Fairy one day, and I got a little concerned. I asked her if the Tooth Fairy were real or if she were like Santa Claus—someone we like to make believe exists. She didn’t want to talk about it.

When I was growing up in Gaithersburg, Santa Claus appeared one night every year at our church and gave each child a box of hard candy and an orange. I remember the exact moment and the exact place when I found out that he wasn’t real. I was in the first or second grade when my mother and several other women from the church were in our dining room cutting out fabric and sewing it. My brother asked her what they were doing. When she told us that they were making a suit for Santa Claus, my brother asked why his wife couldn’t make it for him. Then she told us.

Rather than being a let-down at that moment, it was intriguing and neat—we had been let in on an adult secret. It was a discovery.

From that time on, none-the-less, some of the magic was lost from Christmas. It was never the same after Santa Claus left the land.

There were still the colored lights swaying back and forth in the wind on Frederick Avenue at the end of our street. There were the dark days with violet light and snow flakes occasionally sifting though green boughs, and all that gave a hint of the mysteries in the universe. The loss of the idea of Santa Claus, however, took away some of the glory. Teaching children about Santa can seem to concentrate too much on their receiving gifts and less on charity—yet that isn’t what tends to happen. The myth of Santa Claus is about someone who gives to children just for the delight of giving all children presents. It’s about the spirit of joy and acceptance, and about a night when every child is special, and there is some magic person who wants every child in the world to have presents just because every child is the child who is most precious. That aspect of the symbol of Santa Claus is what must be kept real forever.

Monthly December © 2006 Kentlands Dot Us