AMONG the many articles of my faith which have demanded revision, from time to time, none has experienced more radical changes than my conception of Santa Claus.
As a small child, I was more sure of Santa Claus than of God. Of course, I believed in God, upon the advice of my elders and betters in whose unbroken word I trusted; but I had never tried Him out.
Such requests as I made of Him, in the reverential rumble of my twilight supplications, were extremely vague—a hazy sense of undefined need dissolved in a thin solution of rhythmic jingle. Nor do I recall any definite reactions thus obtained, except the pleasurable sensation produced by the word "Amen." Indeed, unto this day, "Amen" is, to my taste, one of the most euphonious words in our language. On occasions, I have fairly yearned to hear it.
Doubtless this constitutes a confession of serious moral lack, on my part; but if my thesis is to have merit, its conspicuous virtue must be Truth. Heartened by this resolution to be entirely honest, come what may, let me further add concerning the memorized prayer of my early childhood that it had an unpleasant trick of gouging into the most sensitive tissues of my subconsciousness.
"If I should die before I wake" was one of the least enjoyable probabilities offered by the subjunctive mood (whither we commonly resort for our brightest prospects.) And, "Make me a good boy" frankly invited one's memory to push into active consciousness certain hideous and humiliating defections, perhaps painfully fresh and recent, for which one had suffered much psychical shock (and mayhap physical also—for, in the period to which I allude, Solomon's exhortations on parental discipline were "as apples of gold in pictures of silver" in most respectable households.)
The depression, however, produced by "Fyshudie" and "Make me a good boy" was fleeting. The words of the solemn rite skidded over the surface of thought without gripping the road to one's serious reflections. So much for that. (Too much, perhaps.)
Now, Santa Claus, to the child mind no less mysterious than God, as to his nature, attributes, manner of life, and place of abode, was a scientific fact based upon experimental knowledge.
Opinions might differ regarding minor dogmatic points—as to the exact process by which he entered the house on Christmas Eve, for example; the ultraconservatives insisting that the chimney tradition simply must be adhered to, even in homes which boasted no such thing as a "fire-place." They would have it that Santa Claus came down the stove-pipe. Some of the most stiffly orthodox even believed he arrived through the valve in the steam radiator (though this was purely academic. No house where we lived was thus equipped.)
Again, there were certain conservatives who maintained that reindeer and sledge constituted the only vehicular possibilities of Santa Claus; going so far as to defend the idea in green seasons when any sane mind would have repudiated such transportation as being hopelessly impractical.
But however we may have differed over the adiaphora, we were all agreed that Santa Claus came, on Christmas Eve, and contrived to effect an entrance. After all, that was the important consideration. Nothing else mattered much, even if the disputants had arrived at a decision which, so far as I know, they never did. Perhaps the debate is still brewing among the persons who know, today, that Santa Claus is real. ("Not very many of them"—did I hear you say? Not very many persons who believe that Santa Claus is real! There are at least forty-five hundred thousand people in this country, alone, who would stake their hobby-horses and doll-shoes that Santa Claus is the very "realist" of all known realities.)
But, to resume. No sooner was Thanksgiving properly disposed of, than one opened up negotiations with Santa Claus; not in a minor-keyed mumble of well-worn rhymes, but by letter.
They were dignified letters, everyway consistent with good business methods; not over-familiar, not presumptuous; sometimes given a bit to sly flattery; but, on the whole, quite sincere. (It might be observed, of course, that all child letters are sincere. My young nephew writes me, "Deer unkel, i have a new box of stachenary and so i am going to rite you a letter." Nothing hypocritical about that, surely! He is under compulsion to write to somebody: why not to me?)
These letters to Santa Claus were composed with great care. Much pains was taken in the printing of one's name, address, age, and sex. It was not enough to sign oneself "John Henry Jones." To insure against the receipt of a doll, or some such feminine trumpery, one said, plainly, "I am a little boy, six years old. And you know what little boys like, don't you, Santa Claus?"
(Of course, one never said "Santa." One wrote "Santa." The proper pronunciation was "Santy." All the people who believe that he is real, say "Santy." It is only after they have lost their faith that they begin to speak of him as "Santa." There's a huge moral fact back of this, somewhere, waiting for an explorer to find it.)
Not infrequently, the tabulated list of one's more desperate needs was accompanied by prices of the same, care being taken to avoid making quotations in excess of the prevailing market rates on such articles. One never added the column, and set down a total, for obvious reasons. (A few of the main principles of psychology are instinctive.)
Now, there were other serious difficulties to be met in the retention of one's faith in Santa Claus, besides those already indicated. For several weeks, previous to Christmas, he appeared in certain shops and bazaars, the announcement of his arrival duly heralded in the newspapers.
Personally, I revolted against this, with all my mind. Either the printed announcements lied—and their much advertised Santa Claus was some made-up imposter; or, Santa Claus, the genuine and only, had allowed himself to be wickedly imposed upon, to the abject humiliation of his followers.
(More recently, I have seen the national flag unfurled, at the end of a tiresome show or boresome speech, and experienced much the same sensations.)
But, one day, my anxieties on this score were all dispelled. I saw two of them, engaged in earnest conversation, on a street corner. I wondered whether each was contending that he was Santa Claus, and the other a pretender, until I passed quite near them and noted that no such issue was under discussion. It was a clear case that both of them couldn't be Santa Claus; the chances were strong that neither was Santa Claus! I confided my deduction to my mother, who had me in tow, and she repeated it to my father, that evening at supper. He smiled, and said that it was a "rattling good illustration" of something—I couldn't understand just what, at the time. I think I know, now. Perhaps he was thinking of the remark once made by a very thoughtful man concerning one's attitude toward greater mysteries: "The time cometh when neither on this mountain, nor in the temple, will men worship The Father; for He is a Spirit!"
Some of my youthful friends used to say that they tried to keep awake, on Christmas Eve. Now and again, a precocious child reported having made some noteworthy experiments in this field—usually subversive of faith, and quite disconcerting to believers. For my own part, all such investigations were in bad taste; though I may have feared to put my wobbly faith to the supreme test. This invites close analysis. (They used to tell us, twenty-five years ago, that it was wrong to read "Bob Ingersoll," and "Tom Paine." Precisely why it was wrong, they never explained convincingly. Perhaps it was in bad taste, too; or, maybe it was inadvisable to put one's faith to the test. That, also, invites analysis.)
Not invariably, however, have these researches been destructive to faith. I know a boy who, at the age of four, saw Santa Claus. Just now, at twelve, his faith is sorely tried; but, whatever may be the present status of Santa Claus in his regard, he knows that he once saw him. Nothing can shake that firm conviction, based upon the testimony of his senses.
I distinctly recall the minutest details of that event which definitely demoted Santa Claus, in my own opinion, from his erstwhile safe and secure position as a Reality, to the Fairyland of Myth.
It was on the morning of my seventh Christmas. I was sitting on the floor, before our gay little tree. Santa Claus always brought our tree, and decorated it. In some places, he only brought the gifts, the tree being rigged by local forces. But, with us, Christmas was the very busiest time of the year. Santa Claus, fully understanding the peculiar conditions at our house, not only brought our gifts, but "trimmed" the tree.
On this morning, I recognized some ornamental trifles, on the pine branches, as having done previous service in that capacity. It seemed a very strange coincidence that he should return with the identical china deer, with the broken antler, and the same prancing pony that had lost a stirrup.
Without doubt, I could have invented some plausible explanation for this, out of the depths of a faith optimistically elastic, but for the fact that my convictions had suffered much. All the harassing doubts, with which I had successfully wrestled until now, flooded over me; and I looked up into my mother's face, and said, "Tell me, mother—honestly—is there a Santa Claus?"
And she told me—honestly.
I was not wholly unprepared for the shock; but it has been my observation that no matter how securely one braces oneself to receive a blow, one staggers under it when it is actually delivered.
Santa Claus was a fake, then! My face grew hot, at the thought that I had been imposed upon by my own trusted friends. So; he wasn't a "jolly old saint," at all! He was a jolly old fraud—assuming that he was jolly and old! I shouted the equivalent of that sentiment at my mother, almost too boisterously.
She said, gently, "No, my dear; Santa Claus is not a fraud. "Santa Claus" is just a child's name for something a child couldn't understand by its right name. "Don't you remember, when you learned your letters, how you first picked out A from the others?"
"There was a picture of a dog, on the other side of the block!" I recalled.
"Yes; and when we asked you to find A, you had to fumble about among the blocks until you found the dog. That was A! But A doesn't mean 'dog,' any more, does it? Now, 'Santa Claus' is just an idea that stands for Christmas love, and Christmas helpfulness, and Christmas cheer, until one is wise enough to know what such things mean."
"But, mother," I protested. "Why didn't you tell me, a year ago? I would have understood! I know I would!"
"Perhaps you are right," she agreed. "It's hard to know always, just what to do."
We were both silent for a little while, and she resumed.
"Do you remember the time you helped the wee baby chicken out of its shell?"
I remembered. It had been very bad for the chicken.
"Do you see what I mean?" my mother asked, quietly.
I brightened, and assured her that I understood, perfectly. The chicken should have been left to get out of its shell without help. It wasn't ready to get out, at all, until it got itself out. Same way with me. I wasn't ready to let go of Santa Claus until I did it of my own accord. Yes; I understood, perfectly. (I didn't, though! One must see much more serious examples of the human struggles to arise out of the Realm of Myth into the Domain of Truth, by the process of reducing early ideas from the Domain of Truth to the Realm of Myth, before one understands this proposition, perfectly. And, seeing how very poorly I have stated this, I know my understanding of it is quite imperfect, at the present moment.)
Well; after that, for more than a score of years, my interest in Santa Claus was restricted to a smiling, patient tolerance exhibited toward all persons who professed belief in him. Through the little group of years immediately following my apostasy, I achieved a conscious pride in my ability to assist my juniors in the retention of their delusion; though whether it was to atone for the premature deliverance (and death) of the chicken, or for sheer love of exercising my imagination, I do not now recall.
But, it always struck me as an unworthy act to kick the props out from under somebody's faith in anything that promotes his happiness. I think that, to this day.
Of course, we all want to know the Truth. And Truth is eternal, and unchanging, if you insist. So is the moon—for all practical purposes. But, the moon has a habit of appearing, to our eyes, in various forms—the same old moon, all the time.
Three years ago, I knew that no Christian would fight—regardless of the circumstances. I would have staked my last crust on that proposition, as the Truth.
I know, now, that no Christian can refuse to fight, under certain circumstances. That is the Truth!
At all events, one learns, as one grows balder and fatter, that it's a very serious business to tamper with other people's convictions. We become assured of that fact, after we have had a few of our own pet theories swept out at the back door, to be carted off by the ash-man.
Whoever thinks he is anchored fast to anything permanent, therefore, let him be wary about weighing his anchor, on the advice of some skipper who, himself, may be tied up to a floating dock.
I was trying to say—when this interruption occurred—that, for the space of more than twenty years, Santa Claus, so far as I was concerned, sat among such folk as Mother Goose, Old King Cole, and the Pied Piper.
Then, one day, he arose and waddled into my life, again, with the assurance that he bore me no grudge on account of my long neglect—and was there anything he could do for me?
Of course, he couldn't possibly be returned to his old standing; but he contrived to find a place in my heart, again. I saw my long-lost faith in him mirrored in wide eyes that were full of wonder and bright with expectation of his advent. Yes; Santa Claus was really coming, again! I am not sure but I realized more pleasure in his revival than of his earlier acquaintance. Every Christmas, he came triumphantly—doubtless much amused over the ardent interest that he excited in one who had so long disclaimed him.
Then, one day—no, not one day, for this thing that happened was not the work of one day, but a soul-torturing process that covered a period so long that I can hardly remember the dim epoch when it began,—everybody confessed to a feeling of disgust for all things, all forces, all facts, all fancies, emanating from a certain country which, we hoped, was not united to do the crimes predicated of it; but which proved, as the days passed, that it was divided only by the 52° of North Latitude. Otherwise, it was all of a piece. It had sold its soul! It was proud of its bargain! It didn't need a soul, any more!
So utterly foul did that country and its people become, in our opinion, that we shifted nervously in our seats when the orchestra played something that had been born of them. Our fists clenched, automatically, when we heard their gutterals voiced, on the street.
Now, Santa Claus is a native-born German! What's to be done about it?
Shall we consider him a naturalized American, on the strength of our affectionate interest in him? In that case, perhaps we should trim his beard, outfit him in unmistakable American clothes, and stoutly prohibit his habit of carrying those little German cakes about with him in his capacious pockets.
And all the silly little trinkets that he used to hang on our Christmas trees—every one of them German—shall we not demand him to stop dealing in such objectionable ornaments?
Let us strip him of everything even faintly suggestive of that country whose people butcher for the love of the tang in the scent of warm blood!
Now; just a minute! Let's think this through, quietly. This is Christmas, you know. If we must consider it our patriotic duty to hate, maybe we can do our full annual share of it in three hundred and sixty-four days. Surely we are entitled to one day's vacation. And Christmas seems to be a pretty good day to knock off hating, for a few hours.
This awful thing that has been going on, is now ended. Whoever doubts that the German people have earned the disgust, and distrust, of honest humanity deserves to be locked up. But, we can't kill all the Germans, and destroy all their cities, and plough up their country, and sow it in dog-fennel. By the time all our post-bellicose diplomatic chatter is concluded, there will be about as many Germans, to the cubic yard, as there were before.
We will have them to deal with, whether we like it or not. After awhile, we will begin to treat them with kindness. Indeed, if we do not, there will be something missing from our program which involves a square deal for everybody on earth. It requires a tremendous outlay of nervous energy to hate, the way we have been hating. We cannot expect to keep our hating machinery running like that, at top speed, and under forced draught, forever and ever.
Do you remember the story of the cruel and treacherous war-lords of Samaria—Sanballant and Tobiah? If ever there was a pair of rapscallion cutthroats and treaty-breakers, these two should be cited early. And the Samaritan people aided and abetted them in their disgraceful crimes.
But, what do you mean when you speak of someone as a "Samaritan?" Do you mean that he is an assassin? Why, the time came when the world's greatest teacher found a Samaritan who typified the finest spirit of philanthropy! "Good-Samaritan" comes very nearly being one word, in our thought!
Some day, we are going to be anxious to discover just the tiniest fact of mutual interest and mutual affection, to serve as a basis for the amity which must be brought about, between ourselves and our dishonored enemy—if our war sacrifices are to be fully justified
Suppose we say that Santa Claus is a decent German; and permit him to retain his old habits and traditions.
"Why Santa Claus?"—you ask.
Well; you see, the people who know that Santa Claus is Real (some four million, five hundred thousand of them, as I told you) have not yet achieved the fine art of hating. They don't care a fig whether Santa Claus is a native German, Turk, Hottentot, or simian. Now, if he is Real to them—and if they are satisfied with him, as he is—why should you and I undertake to tamper with their cherished friend, when we disbelieve in his very existence?
Let them have him, without the loss of a single button!
Oh, you forty-five hundred thousand unhating, unscathed, care-free, little chaps—keep your Santa Claus. Maybe he will help you patch things up, across the way, sometime.
We cannot do it! It is flat against reason and sense to expect us to assist very much in the reconciliation program. Our part of this redemption plan is purely surgical. Whatever post-operative nursing is to be done, seems to be your task.
There is no reason why you should learn to hate. We have had to do it, and it has made us old before our time, and we have days when we despise our own thoughts.
You keep clear of hate! And, hold you fast to Santa Claus!
Perhaps some people, just because this is Christmas, will consent to go a step farther with me in this soliloquy, and apostrophize the believers in Santa Claus, over in the country that has caused us so much sorrow.
Oh, you half-starved babies—once potential slaves, now faced with the possibility of being free of the fetters that awaited you—hold you fast to Santa Claus, too! For he will surely come to you, soon, if all things end rightly.
And, in future days, may our little boys and girls have occasion to think better of you, than their fathers have had to think of your fathers; to the end that peace and good-will among men shall be the blessed heritage of all—including you.