I want to share a recent conversation that I had with Santa Claus. I arranged to interview him this year because I wanted to know what Santa himself thinks about the meaning of Christmas.
It was not an easy trip, mind you. Getting to the North Pole is a bit of a stretch even for a photojournalist. But I persevered, and it turned out to be quite an adventure.
The first thing Santa said to me as we warmed our hands in front of the fire is that he does the Christmas thing to keep children believing. “Yes,” he said in a somber voice, “without hope for the future and a bit of joy in their lives, children suffer.” He worries that the world is not always a hospitable place for children; that Princes and Princesses and Kings and Queens and Presidents are all failing to buffer children from the discontents of their elders.
So he sees it as his mission to instill in children some wonder, and joy, some feelings of eager anticipation and – most of all – the hope that someone will remember them. “I make it a point to find out about each child before I visit them. I want them to know that I have their name on my Christmas list which makes them feel very important!”
He smiled as he slowly stirred the steaming hot chocolate in his Santa mug. “Folks,” he said, “have really become quite muddled about Christmas. As the story has unfolded over the years they’ve gotten some things mixed up.”
I busily wrote as Santa talked but I could not help but steal a look or two as this jolly old man reminisced.
“All the pictures show me in a sleigh which is loaded down with gifts. But if the truth be known,” he said, “the gifts all fit in my breast pocket!”
Santa then leaned forward in his chair to pull a little worn leather pouch from his pocket.
“The sleigh with reindeer is just a form of transportation,” he said. “But in here – and he held the pouch up against the light of the fire so that I could see it better – in here are the gifts that I bear.”
On a clean page in my notebook I carefully made a list of what was in there:
Delicious smells from the kitchen
A work of art
Squeals of delight
A double rainbow
A pinch of stardust
The glow of candlelight
A glorious red sunset
Songs from the heart
A morning chorus of birds
A poem written in the sand
An Eagle’s view of the world
“Wait a minute!” Santa said as he shook the pouch more aggressively, “This one always gets a little stuck.” Finally, out popped Peace on Earth.
Santa sighed as we looked at the little pile of presents on the coffee table.
“This is what Christmas is all about. It is about good feelings and togetherness, it is not about things.”
I noted that there was not a single red bow on any of the pouch’s contents. And I nodded my head in agreement that Christmas has become altogether too commercialized.
“Take Rudolph,” Santa said. “Kids know him as my lead reindeer with a brightly lit nose. But does he make Christmas? No, I make Christmas happen for him and he gives me lots in return. Rudolph was a disabled reindeer until we discovered the charms of his wonderful red nose. He was very sad and very thin when I first met him because no one liked him; he was different, you see. Other reindeer teased him unmercifully.”
“That Christmas I gave Rudolph a life with meaning. He became part of the family.”
“Store-bought gifts are OK,” Santa went on to say, “but words of encouragement and shows of love are so much better, and so much more lasting in terms of their impact on others.”
We stared at the fire in silence for a while as I collected my thoughts.
“Santa,” I said as I put down my pen, “I was an orphan until the age of six. I had never even heard of Santa Claus until then. Christmas, to me and to my five older brothers, was just another day of the year. We never had a tree, there were certainly no presents for us under a tree, not even the sweet smell of cookies baking.”
“We barely had enough heat in our house and our mother and father were always arguing. Finally they separated when I turned three and my brothers and I became wards of the state.”
“I know.” Santa said.
“But still, we had such fun in those days! My brother, Philip, who was ten at the time, taught the rest of us the words to ‘Silent Night’ and we giggled uproariously as we sang it together at the top of our lungs. One year the boys made me a little doll out of old pillow stuffing and rags. That was so precious to me, that doll. I still have it today.”
Santa smiled at me.
“Come to think of it, Santa, I never felt deprived as a child because of my brothers. We huddled together to ward off danger and we supported each other. I rode on their shoulders when the going got rough. We made do with what we had and we loved each other. Why, if it hadn’t been for them I would have been sixteen and pregnant just like my mother.”
I could not talk any more at that point, as strong feelings were beginning to well up inside of me.
“Yes,” Santa said, ‘but do not forget that you were also their Christmas present. Without you their lives would have been less precious.”
Well, those days are long gone, I thought to myself as I gathered up my things to leave. There has been lots of water over the damn since then. I smiled brightly and thanked Santa for the interview and gave him a big hug.
Santa must have read my mind. He reached his hand into another pocket of his big red coat and pulled out a tattered little piece of paper.
“You must have lost this somewhere along the way,” Santa said as he gave it to me.
I looked down and read the words ‘I am here for you, little sister’ that were scrawled in a 10-year old’s awkward handwriting. The date on it was 1952 and it was signed, PHILIP.
NOTE: I was adopted that year and separated from him and the others, but Philip and I beat the odds and remained the best of friends until his untimely death in 1999.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.