Findings, Submitted December 1999
After 25 years of research on the topic of Santa Claus, I feel compelled to produce a written account of my findings—or at least the findings I have deemed most important. Immediately preceding my conclusions are accounts of two meaningful episodes that occurred early in this long period of inquiry.
* * * *
Anecdote #1—First Grade
It was Anthony Stuart. I detested Anthony Stuart.
“Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse!”
Some kids—usually the mean ones—made fun of my Mickey Mouse briefcase. I liked it, though—the briefcase, that is.
“Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse!”
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Nothing, Mickey! I just like laughing at your briefcase!”
Anthony was smaller than other boys our age. In fact, he was one of those irritating kids who compensates for his diminutive stature with an outsized personality replete with meanness and venom. A rust colored knit cap pulled down over his head pushed his dark brown hair down to meet his wormlike eyebrows, whose color contrasted with the livid blue eyes from which his contempt poked out like pikes. His mouth always gave his countenance a pernicious sneer, whether he was talking or just looking at you, trying to make you feel like an imbecile.
“What’s Santa Claus going to bring you, Mickey Mouse?” he hissed.
“A speedometer, I hope.”
“Ha!” scoffed Anthony, “There is no Santa Claus, stupid!”
“Yes there is.”
“No, there isn’t. He’s dead!”
“Leave me alone!” I snapped.
“I’m telling you, he died a long time ago.”
“Yeah? Well, what about the toys?” I protested.
“Your parents buy those. Ask Mrs. Bottita. There is no Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse.”
On most topics Anthony was a liar—everybody knew that—but our teacher Mrs. Bottita wasn’t. We all trusted her, and none of us invoked her name as an authority on an issue if we didn’t mean it. I began to fear, therefore, that this time he might actually be telling the truth.
“Hey, guys,” said Anthony, his little Napoleon legs impelling him on his way to catch up to his friends, “Mickey Mouse thinks there’s a Santa Claus!”
A faint report of laughter issued from a knot of slightly larger boys who had turned to acknowledge him. A moment later, he was assumed into their mass, and they all proceeded homeward, their breath rising in the cold air as they walked.
Santa Claus was probably my favorite person in the entire world. This resulted not from what I had received on Christmas mornings prior to that time, though I appreciated my toys very much. Perhaps it was the excitement I got from seeing him on decorations, on television, or at the mall. Santa was everything that was warm and kind. What’s more, the man was magic incarnate, and it saddened me that some people seemed determined not to recognize this. Anthony Stuart was obviously one such person.
I resolved to find my teacher and talk to her about this, so I ran back to the school entrance. The vice-principal met me at the door.
“Well, young man! I would say you’re going the wrong way!”
“Mr. Choplik!” I said, somewhat surprised.
Mr. Choplik was the school disciplinarian, and he could be kind of scary. I wasn’t worried, though. As dark and intimidating a pers. I tried to look past him into the school.
“Has Mrs. Bottita left yet?”
“I’m afraid so,” he replied. “Are you in trouble?”
“No. I need to ask her a question.”
“Anything I can help with?”
“May I go to the library?” I asked.
“Shouldn’t you be going home now?”
“Just for a minute? I have to look something up.”
“Listen,” said Mr. Choplik, “I think it’s time you went home. Your mother will get worried.”
“It will only take a minute, I promise,” I pleaded.
He paused, rubbing his eyes underneath his glasses, then relented.
“Ah, for cryin’ out loud…go ahead,” he said, “Mrs. Carlson should still be there.”
Mrs. Carlson, of course, was not pleased to see me. She, like everyone else, was probably eager to go home and start her holiday, but I was persistent.
“Really, Mrs. Carlson, I need to look at the encyclopedias.”
“At 3:15 on the twenty-third of December? When I’ve got my coat on and my keys in my hand?”
“It is a matter of great importance!” I had heard that line on Masterpiece Theater. I think I said it with an English accent.
“Gray hair!” she cried, “You kids give me gray hair!”
Still, she held the door open and gestured for me to enter, so I ran over to the reference section and feverishly flipped through the S volume of the encyclopedia until I found an entry for “Santa Claus.” Here is what it said:
“SEE NICHOLAS, ST.”
This was an inauspicious sign. Adults were evasive enough about this question; now a reference book was giving me the runaround.
I went back to the shelf and picked out the “N” volume. Having looked up historical personages before, I knew that if the person were no longer alive, there would be two years given, something like, “1864-1910.” If the individual still lived, however, there would only be one date. Alas, I was not prepared for what I saw:
“NICHOLAS, ST., c. 4thC AD…”
This required further reading. I couldn’t understand all of the words, and when I asked Mrs. Carlson for a dictionary, she told me to go home. Now, I was becoming desperate. While Mrs. Carlson was no Mrs. Bottita, I asked her what she knew.
“No way! I’m not getting dragged into this! Go home and ask your mother.”
“But please, Mrs. Carlson,” I pleaded, “I have to know—”
“Merry Christmas!” she said as she pushed me out the door of the library.
Somewhat discouraged, I began my walk home. I recalled that about two weeks earlier I had written a letter to Santa. In this letter—written neatly in cursive—I extended an invitation to him to stop by at about 7:00 on Christmas Eve for a short visit before embarking to deliver toys to all of the other children of the world. The thought that this letter was written to someone who did not exist was greatly troubling to my sensitive soul.
I began to think I should simply follow Mrs. Carlson’s advice and ask my mom, but for some reason, the more curious I was about something, the harder it was to get a useful answer from her. I knew it would be the same with this question. And if I asked my dad, he would just say, “Ask your mother.”
Here is an example of what I mean. Two years earlier I asked about where my brother came from. She told me Piscataway, NJ. Undeterred by the evasion, I asked again. “The same way you did,” she said. Impatient, but not wholly discouraged, I pressed on. She ultimately told me that my brother and I both had come from her stomach, and that a seed from my dad caused us to grow there before we were born. This satisfied me for a few moments. Then I asked, “How did the seed get there?”
My mother promptly changed the subject.
So on I walked, all the way home. I entered the side door by the kitchen, and I understood that, reluctant as I was to ask her, my mother was perhaps my only remaining source for answers. She was in the dining room sorting out some Christmas decorations that I was hoping to help put up that evening. She stepped over to hug me, giving me a kiss on my woolen winter hat.
“Mom,” I said tentatively, “I have a question for you, and I really need an answer.”
“Sounds serious!” she replied as she moved a wreath and sat down at the table. “Let’s hear it.”
“Is there really a Santa Claus, or do you and Dad buy all of the toys at Christmas time?”
“Well…” she said, summoning all of her powers of equivocation, “…do you really think we can afford all of that junk you get on Christmas?”
That wasn’t an answer; it was another question, but it was a good one. This was the woman who would not give me a quarter to buy candy or gum because, as she said, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.” This year I wanted a bicycle speedometer, and that cost more than a quarter because I looked at the price tag when I was at Sears, and it said “$6.50.” I knew better than to bother asking my parents for something that expensive.
All of this was enough to keep my faith alive.
The next day, too, would hold out some hope, as that was the day before Christmas. If I could somehow hold myself together until the evening, and if Santa did indeed take me up on my invitation to stop by for a visit, that would prove that there was a point in writing my letter, and that Santa Claus may exist.
Of course, I say that he may exist because any kid can tell you that not every fat man in a red suit is the real Santa Claus. But even a substitute Santa would be enough to keep intact my belief in the man himself.
So, during the daylight hours of 24 December 1974, I shared as best I could the details of my predicament with my brother Mark, who was only three, but grasped the essential matter at hand. The hours dragged on toward the fateful hour when Santa—should he accept my invitation—would be expected to knock on my door. As the time neared, my mother sent Mark and me upstairs to change into our pajamas. I took special pains to dress and come downstairs again as quickly as possible so as not to miss my expected visitor.
But 7:00 soon came and went. Then 7:15. Then 7:30. As more time passed, I became more visibly despondent. My mother sympathized with my plight and suggested that perhaps I had too much riding on whether or not Santa accepted my invitation. After all, she said, he might be too busy to visit. Maybe he had a policy of not visiting people on Christmas Eve. As long as I was going to torture myself, I might as well make myself useful and wrap some presents to take to my Aunt Rosemary’s the next day. I agreed.
This chore lasted slightly more than an hour, but as we finished, Mom expressed her regrets. Mark and I, she said, would have to go to bed. As disappointed as I was, I resigned myself to the mystery, and though I was not happy, I figured that no news was good news. I declined an offer from my father for a piggy-back ride upstairs, and I looked once more at the front door. Perhaps at this final moment before bedtime, I would hear footsteps on the porch. Perhaps a silhouette of Santa would appear behind the curtained window. Perhaps the bell would ring, and I would rush to greet my great big bearded friend as my father opened the door.
But nothing happened. The light on the porch shone through the window undisturbed. My heart remained heavy, and my spirits had already sunk too low for tears. I walked past the Christmas tree toward the stairs, wondering whether the cookies and milk my mother was putting on a small table beside it would even be consumed. I still had a shred of hope that Santa Claus existed, but I relinquished any hope that I would see him that evening.
Then, as I was about halfway up the stairs, a miracle occurred.
The doorbell rang! It wasn’t the front door, but the side door—just off the kitchen. Mark was there with my father, taking his medicine, so he saw before I did who had come to visit. Hearing my brother exclaim “Santa Claus!” was enough to apprise me of the situation, and I jumped down to the foot of the stairs to see Mark leading Santa Claus toward me, past me, and then over to the couch.
I was in awe. I watched intently as my brother sat on his lap and talked to him. I felt no envy as Santa handed him a gift. It was as if I existed in a dream world. Nothing sounded distinct, but rather ethereal, as voices in a long tunnel. I stood, transfixed, until I felt my father pick me up and deposit me in Santa’s lap. As I started to come to, I was ready to find out if this guy was for real.
And was he ever! This was no mall Santa. This was the man himself, the actual Santa Claus! This was the true St. Nicholas—the c.-4th-C-AD, ever-watching, list-making, twice-checking fulfillment of my every expectation! And how did I know? Well, I’ll tell you what he told me:
According to this man in the red suit, my middle name was David. My teacher was Mrs. Bottita. I was in first grade at Eisenhower Elementary School on Stelton Road. I sat at a table in class with Jennifer, Kathy, and Joey. The title of my math workbook was Mathematics for You, and it had an orange cover. My reading group was called Planet of the Apes, and the members of my group had voted on that name in September, choosing it over several other possibilities including The Cheetahs, which I had suggested because the cheetah was my favorite animal—the fastest animal in the world, in fact, because it could run 60 miles per hour. Speaking of speed, by the way, he had something for me that I might like, and I might open now if I so chose. Now who else but Santa Claus could know and say all of that to me?
With all of my doubts dispelled, I was content to open my gift—a bicycle speedometer that went all the way up to 50 miles per hour! I thanked Santa, and asked him if he knew what Anthony Stuart had told me. He said he could imagine what it was, and that I needn’t worry about Anthony.
Well, I could not let it go. I suggested that the same good judgment that had apparently assigned me a position in the “Nice” category would be quite correct to list Anthony in the “Naughty” column, perhaps with a few arrows and exclamation points. I offered as well to accept Anthony’s allotment of gifts for the year. It would teach him to have a little faith, I thought, and not to diminish that of others. Santa informed me, however, that he had the matter under control, and that Anthony Stuart was a good boy in his own way.
Hearing it from anyone else, I wouldn’t have believed it, but this was Santa.
At length it was time for Santa Claus to get started on his route, but he told me that it was a pleasure to receive my letter, that it was neatly written, and that he did not know that first graders could write in cursive. I told him, of course, that I had taught myself to write that way—with a little help from Mom and Mrs. Bottita—and that I hoped that next year I would be able to write even more neatly. He said he would look forward to the letter.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” I cried, just as Santa reached the door. “My best friend from kindergarten, Kevin Klein, moved to Louisiana over the summer, and I never got his address. Would you tell him I said hi?”
Santa Claus agreed to do so, and so he walked out my front door into the darkness of Christmas Eve.
* * * *
Anecdote #2—Early January 1977
Just over two years later, we had since moved from Piscataway to Jackson. We had a bigger, newer house, lots of property, and woods behind our house. When it rained hard, a large puddle would remain in the back yard, and if the weather turned cold enough, the little pond would freeze, and I could ice skate with my brother.
The holidays naturally changed when we moved, but not in a bad way. The spirit was still there, and I continued to write to Santa. Though I am sure he knew he had an open invitation for another visit, I did not press the issue in my correspondence. I had taken enough of his time, and I was satisfied with the idea that he would visit anyway, however briefly, when he delivered gifts as I was sleeping on Christmas Eve.
After our second holiday season in the new house, I was as grateful as ever for Santa’s generosity and wished to express my gratitude for that year’s gifts. My mother was cooking dinner, and she saw me sit down at the kitchen table to begin my letter. Before too long, she walked to the opposite side of the table, sat, and told me that we ought to talk.
It was about time, according to my mom, that I understand some things about Christmas more—accurately. Specifically, she wanted to discuss Santa Claus. She seemed rather serious yet gentle as she spoke. Despite being intent to write my letter, I was taken aback that she would broach on her own a topic of such keen importance to me—and a topic on which she had for years been reticent.
“I know,” Mom said, “how much Santa means to you. And I know how strongly you believe in him.”
“Of course,” I replied, “How could I not? But I feel bad. Few of my friends even believe he exists.”
My mother sighed. It seemed almost as if she had a confession to make, and I had the sense that she did not know how to proceed. She wrapped her hands around a coffee cup that appeared to have been on the table for some time, and she stared into it. After a second or two, she took a breath.
I was not prepared for the lucidity of what my mother said next. She uttered but a brief truth—a statement of fact. And for the first time outside of a context in which I was being scolded, she was forthright and unequivocal.
“The spirit of Santa Claus,” she explained, “might exist in the hearts of children all over the globe, but his body was buried a very long time ago.”
I paused and looked away toward the window. Then my gaze returned to her.
“Ha!” I replied, “Impossible! I met the man! He knew my middle name; he knew Anthony Stuart; he knew that I was a part of Planet of the Apes!”
My mother continued, explaining that that particular Santa Claus was a man she had found to visit children throughout Piscataway on Christmas Eve. Moreover, she had informed him of my middle name, and strangely enough, he just happened to be—Mrs. Bottita’s brother!
I was incredulous.
Mom concluded by saying she was sorry to dissolve my belief in Santa, but she maintained that she never lied to me.
I needed time to assimilate this. I rose from the table and walked to the window. I stared for what seemed several minutes past our back yard, into the woods. The sun was out, and the snow had the blotchy appearance it gets when melting. I could see veins of brownish gray as the dead leaves beneath were becoming visible.
I couldn’t explain to myself why I wasn’t disappointed or shocked; I simply accepted the explanation, as difficult as it was for me to assimilate. As a matter of fact, I was pleased with the very direct approach she took with me in this matter. A smile crept onto my face as I turned back to face my mom at the table. I wondered whether she would apply her newfound frankness to another topic.
“Mom?” I asked.
“How does the man’s seed get into the woman’s stomach?”
“Ask your father.”
* * * *
St. Nicholas was a bishop who lived in Asia Minor during the fourth century of the Christian Era. He is the patron saint of sailors, of children, and of Holland. Centuries after his death, his body was moved to Bari, Italy from its original burial place in what is now Turkey. The Dutch, who called him Sinter Klaas, brought his cult to the new world, where his image has become inseparable from the winter holidays. The historical Nicholas has been dead for over fifteen centuries, but Santa Claus will never die. And since 24 December 1974, nothing has shaken my belief in him.
© 1999 Paul Fornale