Santa’s useless helpers

Chimney reversedThe second in my apparently annual series of Yuletide mullings (last year’s “In the bleak midwinter” discussed the darker seasonal myths of medieval Germany) was triggered by a headline I spotted on my train ride home from work a week ago. “NORAD fighter pilots prepare to escort Santa”, it read; beneath it was a photo of two Canadian air force CF-18s. It’s a yearly tradition, of course — I have a vague memory of listening to “radar updates” on Santa’s progress as a kid in the 1970s — but still, something about it grated on me.

Co-option of the Santa myth by a military organization intent on improving its brand image is hardly a shocking development in a century-long cultural evolution that has taken us from handmade toys and apples in old stockings to the multi-billion-dollar global multimedia marketing onslaught that is Christmas today. Rather, what bothers me is that our well-meaning efforts to integrate Santa Claus into our high-tech civilization are undermining what small sense of enchantment still lives in the hearts of modern children.

Our world is a physical one, and integrating Santa into it means making him physical too. Sending jet fighters to “escort” him on his Christmas Eve rounds, for example, implies that his sleigh and reindeer team are solid enough to be tracked on radar and that they fly low and slow enough for man-made aircraft to accompany them. Similarly, the post office’s free service for delivering children’s letters to the North Pole assumes that Santa’s workshop is a fixed location with at least an airstrip for landing cargo planes full of mail.

When I was a child, using Canada Post didn’t even occur to my parents. I did write actual letters to Santa (in one of them, I asked for super powers for my entire family and even for my cat, generous little soul that I was), but I was told that the way to get my letter to him was to burn it in the fireplace. This made perfect sense to me. Though I believed completely in a Santa Claus, no part of my belief required him to physically receive a piece of paper with writing on it. The letter-smoke went up our chimney, and somehow he just knew what I had written.

Santa’s physical reality was never assumed. True, the milk and cookies that my sister and I put out for him in the evening always disappeared overnight. Yet at the same time we were well aware that our chimney (we had a Franklin wood stove for a fireplace with a nine-inch diameter steel pipe carrying the smoke up the main shaft) was far too small for a human being to squeeze through it. And landing a reindeer team on the icy and sharply peaked roof of our farmhouse was out of the question. But for some reason we never thought too hard about such problems. They seemed beside the point. The Santa of our imaginations never required a great deal of coherence to seem real.

By contrast, what the materializing of the myth leads to is a depressingly literal and simplistic form of imaginative experience. Material things, after all, either exist or do not exist. You believe in them, or you don’t. A child who surprises his parents putting presents under the tree thus goes from wholehearted belief to full-scale disbelief in one jump, with no room for gradualism or nuance. Once the “truth” is revealed, the whole thing must seem like a confusing and bitter lie to many kids.

But immaterial things never have to go away suddenly or even completely. They can move from “certainly so” to “probably not” without having to ever quite reach “no such thing”. We don’t have to consciously believe in ghosts to suspect in the dead of night that maybe they do exist at some level. We don’t have to proclaim a belief in God to be surprised by the possibility of grace while staring into a particularly beautiful sunrise. Just so, if we never believed Santa to be a physical creature, there would be no need for him to vanish for us all at once — and no single piece of evidence would be able to kick the legs out from under the myth. Like grownups, children are resourceful, and are quite capable of dealing with situations of cognitive dissonance by adjusting their beliefs to new realities, so long as those beliefs are not constructed in a static, materialist fashion. Realizing that our parents are the ones putting our presents under the tree and consuming the milk and cookies doesn’t need to mean that Santa Claus is an out and out lie.

To live with us successfully in a complex world, myths require ambiguity, vagueness, and a good amount of flexibility. They also benefit from peace and quiet, as rare as that is today. In a silent room, after all, our ears can play tricks on us. We might fancy that we hear a phone ringing somewhere far off, or that we’ve somehow caught a single word out of an otherwise unheard conversation. If we’re children, and if it’s just after lights out on Christmas Eve, then if we listen as hard as we can we might faintly hear sleigh bells, or even, if we’re very lucky, the sound of hooves in snow.

The real magic, as always, is in our minds.

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