I Believe In The Santa Brand.
We all know him as the jolly fat man in the red suit who wears a floppy red stocking cap and sports a full white beard and mustache. He is the number one citizen of the North Pole. But how did he get there? And where did he get that red suit trimmed in white fur? And where did that cookie thing come from? And how does he slip down our chimneys?
It’s all quite complicated. But it’s also really very simple.
The real Saint Nick was a tall, slim Mediterranean.
His name was Saint Nicholas of Myra – which is in the country that is now Turkey. He was a bishop who was famous and beloved for his generosity. The day he died – on December 6 in the 4th Century AD – is still celebrated as Saint Nicholas Day in Austria, Germany, Armenia, Holland and other European countries.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the children of English colonists in the New World met up with other immigrants and become aware of the Dutch tradition of leaving wooden shoes outside your door into which Sinterklaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas) leaves presents. The colonists also learn about Christkindl, who was a female German angel who brought gifts at Christmastime. English children in the New World mispronounced these names as SANTA CLAUS and KRIS KRINGLE.
In the 19th century, the Santa Claus legend expands, as does the jolly old elf’s belly.
Writer Washington Irving conjures Santa a flying sleigh in his book “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” The famous children’s poet-storyteller Clement Clarke Moore has Santa sliding down chimneys in the classic poem “The Night Before Christmas.” Santa is somehow able to keep an eye on all the children in the world from his home base at the North Pole, according to illustrator Thomas Nast’s weekly cartoons in Harper’s Magazine. All this notoriety leads to the first “department store” Santa, at a small shop in Philadelphia.
In 1912, the U.S. Post Office creates an address for all the “Dear Santa” letters it has been receiving. Now children can actually mail their wish lists to “Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska.”
In 1931, the Coca Cola Bottling Company crystalizes Santa’s unique look for an advertising campaign, outfitting him in its own corporate colors – red and white. This is the version of Santa Claus that most Americans know, and love.
In 1947, movie director George Seaton made “Miracle on 34th Street.” It is a touching film about an old man by the name of Kris Kringle who fills in for a drunken Santa in Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. He proves to be so popular that he is soon ensconced in Macy’s main store in midtown Manhattan to greet children and their parents. When Kringle surprises both customers and his employer by claiming to be the real Santa Claus, it leads to a trail to determine his mental stability, and more crucially, his authenticity.
There is a scene in the film where Edmund Gwenn, the wonderful actor who plays Santa Claus, is sitting in his Santa chair at Macy’s, greeting each of the children waiting in a long line to see him. The next person in line is a woman with a little Dutch orphan girl in tow. The woman explains that the child is adopted, is from Holland, and cannot speak English, but she desperately wanted to meet Santa Claus anyway. The woman says that she told the child Santa Claus wouldn’t be able to speak to her in her native tongue. At which point, Kris Kringle startles everyone by talking to the little girl in Dutch. They conclude by singing a traditional Dutch Christmas song together. All the while, the young daughter of the Macy’s executive who hired Kringle is witnessing this. Her jaw drops. Later, she tells her very pragmatic mother about what she saw and says, “He’s so nice and kind. He has to be Santa, mother. He just has to be.” At this point in the film, tears are streaming down my cheeks. And, of course, we learn at the end of the movie that Mr. Kringle is exactly who he always said he was. He is indeed the real Santa.
In New York City alone, over half a million letters arrive at the post office each year that are addressed to Santa Claus. Half a million precious, heartfelt wishes from children who are nicer than naughty, and who believe with all their hearts in the man with the red suit. How could we possibly disappoint them?
I myself have always believed in Santa Claus. Since I was a young child. I have never doubted that his goodness, kindness and abundant generosity are the very essence of Christmas.
Santa Claus does exist. There is no doubt in my mind. None. His abiding warmth, kindheartedness and profound altruism are what make Christmastime the most wonderful time of the year.
This December, next week in fact, my 7-year old grandson Willem and I will pop a bunch of popcorn, and watch “Miracle on 34th Street” together. I want Wills to see this movie, and I want his belief in the man with the red suit to continue for as long as possible. Hopefully forever.
Many years ago, a very wise Protestant Minister who was my pastor, mentor and dear friend, taught me to look for the face of Christ in everyone I see. He also said that my face might be the only “Christ” that other people ever see. It was a profound lesson. It reminds me that Santa Claus, like Jesus, is in all of us. His goodness, his munificence and his nobility are inside us all. Sadly, these qualities are locked away for most of the year. But they are on full display at Christmas. The man in the red suit helps bring them out.
It doesn’t matter that mommy bought the gift, or that daddy devoured the cookies and milk you left out for Santa. What matters most is that we are acting as Santa’s agents. We have him firmly in our hearts and we are following his lead, trying to do exactly what he would do.
As the editor of the New York Sun Newspaper said in 1897, in a famous editorial written in response to a letter from an 8-year old: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Amen to that.