St. Nikolas of Myra, the prototype of Santa Claus is revered throughout the world. Photo credit: the author.
I am, at times and by spells, a true believer. From my earliest memories until the age of eight I was indeed a true believer. Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I trusted implicitly, without question, what I was told—especially by my elders and by older children. As a child, I believed devoutly in Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the North Pole workshop. Fortunately, I rarely heard tales of witches and goblins or trolls in my bedtime stories, or I would assuredly have been terrified by an absolute faith in those horrific fantasies, as well.
I began first to appropriate the Clausian mythology almost osmotically. The grand elf appeared soon after Thanksgiving in all the shops and stores of the city. He—or his surrogate as I learned when I inquired—even held court in the big department store downtown in Mobile, Alabama. I accepted as believable the explanations of the only-approximately-polar attire of Gayfer Department Store Santas: shoe covers to simulate boots and false cotton whiskers. Santa’s “helpers” were in abundant attendance, too, characters who supposedly reported their conversations to the jolly elf, His Great Redness, himself. I found it an inescapable and seductive prospect that my deepest desires could be granted by a benevolent, generous old elf in a red suit if I but let him in on my secret wish by whatever means available. Thus, I was compelled to believe. Just to be sure he got the message, I also wrote to him in block letters on a Big Chief pad of blue-lined paper addressed to “Mr. S. Claus, North Pole.” I told of my longing for an impossibly expensive bicycle. So trusting of his intent and benevolence was I that it did not occur to me that his clandestine nightly visit should have been slightly threatening. That he annually persisted in his recidivistic practice of committing a class-C-misdemeanor of global breaking and entering on the evening of 24 December was of no concern at all.
The Gospel According to Clement Moore
I found “The Night Before Christmas” a wondrously compelling tale, which my faithful father and mother read to me, my sister, and my brother every Christmas Eve. Flying reindeer! Imagine the sight! Reindeer, themselves, were exotic enough for a swamp-rat like me to comprehend, but flying reindeer? I had seen flying squirrels and flying bats as well as millions of birds on the wing. But I had never seen a Lapland reindeer at all and certainly not a flying one. But who was I to question the veracity of such accounts of air-borne sleighs, accounts that were documented in sacred print and attested to by radio reports of his progress across the globe? Had I not even once received a telegram from the North Pole encouraging my “nice-ness”?
I was just a child of eight. I was discovering daily other wonders previously unknown to me that were being revealed to my wondering eyes in books and in the tales my science teacher told. I was learning that my imagination did not limit the range of what is Reality. Thus, I chose to hope and suspended any doubt. To doubt might make it impossible to acquire the bike that I so wanted. And thus I waited. I suppressed my guilt at my mercenary faith.
Christmas 1955 was approaching. I was growing anxious. How would Santa fit my bike into his small sled or down a chimney? How did he enter our house that had no chimney? And would he be able to find me when we were visiting at my Aunt Vivian and Uncle “Doc’s” house in Columbus, Georgia?
“No doubts!” I reminded myself, but I fretted anyway. When I shared my concerns at supper the week before Christmas, my parents remarked that surely Santa could find me since he kept up with such things routinely, and anyway, perhaps he might bring a special gift as a special pre-Christmas delivery before we left on the trip. The next night again we sat at supper.
Before dessert my parents stopped, looked at each other. “Did you hear that? I thought I heard sleigh bells.” Mother declared.
Dad suggested, “Sammy, why don’t you go look in the living room, and tell us what you find?”
I complied and was overjoyed to discover a bicycle, shiny and new, sitting in the middle of the floor. No tag or bow was necessary; I knew for whom it was, and I knew who had brought it—a surreptitious, hasty reindeer aviator.
After several minutes of exaltation, I rushed outside to tell Pete and Dean Cooper, my boyhood neighbors and pals, of the miraculous appearing of my great gift. They were likewise pleased for me, as real friends should be. They even assisted me in searching for reindeer prints in the dirt. I found several suspicious marks that were evidence enough that I had been, indeed, visited minutes before by Saint Nick himself and by his flying herd.
Part of every Christmas eve at the author’s house was a review of The Night Before Christmas. Sammy, Dad, Cindy Lou, and Baby Dale absorb the gripping poem ca. 1954. Photo credit: Matteson family snapshot scanned by Cindy (Matteson) King.
But I secretly wondered. I had heard the smug pronouncements of the second-grade Santa-agnostics. I half-worried that I was the victim of a conspiracy, a hoax, a grand deception. But I kept quiet about my growing doubt as we traveled to Columbus, Georgia for a family Christmas.
I looked on Aunt Vivian and Uncle Doc as aristocrats. Uncle Doc Jordan—“Jur-den” as it was pronounced in the proper vernacular of western Georgia—was a respected urologist. He always wore a bow tie that, amazingly, was not a clip-on, but rather the real thing. He reminded me of the many illustrations of Saint Nicolas that I had seen: short, silver haired, balding and a little stout, with “smoke circling his head like a wreath.” Only “Doc” was somewhat strange; he smoked cigarettes held in a Dunhill black lacquer cigarette holder that with his glasses evoked the mystique of FDR. Uncle Doc spoke earthily with a gravelly drawl but always in a charming and sophisticated manner. Once he examined his sister-in-law Ruth, who was suffering from a bladder ailment. He gleefully reported to the family that he had found a Green Stamp adhering to her derriere, probably due to a wayward saving stamp that had fallen into her dresser drawer. “Sister, do you always give Green Stamps to your customers?” He snickered as he recounted his question to the adults. I did not fully comprehend his meaning at the time. He only gave me a sly wink and a nod.
Aunt Vivian was a giant woman who towered over her physician husband. They had met professionally years before when she worked as an LVN, but now she managed their large household and two rowdy boys. Hers was an elegant table that often baffled me. I tasted politely the strangely pale spread that they called “butter.” “Give me my yellow oleo margarine-butter, thank you!” I thought but did not say. There were also casseroles concocted of exotic substances like egg plant that looked like no egg or plant that I had ever seen before and that my child’s palate did not appreciate. But the dark golden candied yams with white punctuations of melted marshmallow I devoured. I wondered between bites if the strange and fancy foods that their dark skinned cook prepared and passed to their gray haired maid in her starched gray uniform, who served it on silver trays, was what made my aunt and uncle seem so sophisticated.
The Jordans lived in a large multi-story red brick house that accommodated all of the assembled family for the holiday. I was assigned a guest bed situated at the top of the grand staircase that led up from the living room out of sight of the festive room but only barely out of earshot. Christmas Eve finally came and the other children and I were at last dispatched to bed. But sleep did not come soon to me. I worried that if I lost my saintly faith the magic of Christmas Eve would vanish as well. Simultaneously, I wanted to see for myself the mystic elf materialize in the room below, but dreaded the unthinkable truth. Late in the evening the house grew quiet except for suspicious noises that drifted up from below. I struggled not to listen too closely, wondering if it were Santa or some other individual “making Christmas.” I had seen unusual lumps under a quilt in the trunk of our car when my father had put in the suitcases earlier. I ached with doubt, not wanting my myth to die, but not willing to live ignorant and foolish, a child forever.
In the early morning as the sun slipped through the crack in the blinds and poked me in the eye. I awoke. I lay in bed awake. I did not give in to the compulsion to run downstairs until I heard my name being called, “Sammy! It’s Christmas!” Sammy required no second call. The living room was beautiful. Everywhere there were brightly packaged gifts for everyone. I recognized some of the wrapping paper from trips to the market. “Did Mrs. Claus shop at Delchamps too?” I secretly wondered. The cookies and milk that we had left for Santa were gone. A note lay in their place. It read, “THANKS, SANTA,” written in a hand that reminded me of my mother’s block script. Like too much sugar in a cold glass of iced tea, my doubts crystallized and precipitated into apostasy with this last teaspoon of evidence.
A Fall from Santa’s Grace
Sometime during Christmas Day I silently decided that I would not believe any more, despite the risks. Santa Claus dissolved in my mind. The myth died in me. I did not speak of it, but I slipped into unbelief. I returned to Mobile less a child of wonder than when I had departed.
At sixteen, those same feelings of unease returned. I began to question whether the stories that I had heard in church and during weekly squirming hours at Sunday School—tales that the adults and older children around me loved and believed so devoutly—were only childish myths like stories of the great polar benefactor, too. How does one know the truth, if indeed there is a Truth?
The same aching faith-storms I knew in my long Georgia-Christmas night rose up again in my mind as viciously as the meteorological gales that lashed Bayfront Road. I began to think about what I had heard and to review and examine what I thought I knew. I learned from credible historians that Jesus was indeed real; he was not a made-up character, a mere excuse for Christmas retail. The records of his life, the Gospels, while controversial in their origins, were not invented in the middle ages nor was the Bible “written by Shakespeare” as one ignorant and arrogant self-styled atheist high school acquaintance claimed, even if the English translation I was reading was filled with a hundred pages of “thee” and “thou” and “Yea! Verily . . .”
I learned that Saint Nicholas was also a person, a bishop of third century Asia Minor, who had such a generous heart that he did many deeds of kindness in secret. His bones can still be visited in the village of Bari in southern Italy. Yet, how had a real person, one who acted in real time and space been so transformed into a mythical elf? Even more troubling was the thought that, perhaps over two millennia, the real Rabbi Jeshua had been corrupted into a Christ myth. I had to know. I dug deeper, fearfully at first. I began to consider the major religions of the world. I examined the major philosophies of the ages. I thought about the evidence for and against the proposition of God and of the Christian God, in particular. In my search I was helped by conversations with my wise and kind pastor, Brother Mahlon Thomason. (We in the 1950s South always called our pastor and deacons, “Brother” in a reverential tone.) He never seemed to be shocked at any proposition that I brought to his attention, nor did he ever tell me I was wrong. Rather he simply asked me questions that often began, “Have you considered . . . ?” I felt safe to talk to him about what was troubling me. I began to feel that I need not fear to examine my doubts or to face the truth, whatever it was.
A Transforming Story
In my deliberations—the deliberations of a jury of one—I became convinced that I could get a sense of who this Joshua (another transliteration of the common first century name Jesus) really was. I concluded that he is and had been a transforming personality to everyone who met him, in person, or in the witness of the New Testament, down through the centuries. Even Nicholas of Myrna, the original Saint Nick, was changed when he met the Christ of the Bible. His character had been transformed by his faith and he was never the same afterward. I, too, had met God in my own experience, not just as a myth or in a story, but in my own life and I had been existentially changed forever by that encounter. The track of my life took a turn when at age nine I committed what I was and would become to him. While the storm of doubt and self-questioning raged, I had an anchor: I did not just know about God; I felt that I actually knew God Himself. I had never really met Santa Claus, even though impersonators had tried to delude me with tangible fakes. Conversely, I really knew this very God by intangible, but nevertheless real encounters. What I concluded was that there was evidence, and that it made sense. I became a believer again, not a believer in a fairy tale told to a child, but rather a convinced mature believer who is persuaded by evidence and reasonable argument. In the decades that followed, even as I pursued my calling as a natural scientist, that persuasion became even more compelling. The physical universe appeared to me to be ancient but not eternal. No means was found by which it could have created itself. Moreover, mankind was not inevitable on this planet. That we are, indeed as is all we encounter, a wonder, a providential grace. The more I learned, the more beautiful I found the universe to be. Indeed, it is good. And what of the human condition? I saw the image of God imprinted in me as well as in each person I met. Yet we are ever striving souls that struggle to have our own way, preternaturally estranged from that glorious promise, potentially holy but more often horrific.
Now, I see all of creation in the light of the story of a loving God rescuing His wayward children through a redeeming Christ. The heavens are indeed telling the glory of God, the story of a real event that occurred in history and of a life that was lived in the first century of this current era. That story proclaimed that there is hope for humanity, but only in redemption.
It is a truism that not all we think we see is real. We sometimes find what we are looking for, despite the evidence to the contrary. Thus, I have been on my guard to critique my persuasions since my youth. Conversely, not all we cannot see is unreal. In the end the evidence of what is actual must decide the issue for us. We must only have the courage to look at the facts as squarely as we can and take what we find for what it is. Then we must risk all that we are—or that we have—to live by that knowledge and walk about in that light. Then and only then—my experience prompts me to believe—have we the right of claiming ourselves honestly to be true believers.
Does knowing that the beauty of the rainbow arises proximally from the dispersive refraction of sunlight through droplets of water reduce any of its glory or obscure its ultimate meaning? Photo credit: the author.