I used to believe in Santa Claus.
I believed when I was 4 years old; when I was part of a two-parent family in the green house on MacArthur Drive; when I studied hard and got a good report card; when I got my first job at a fast food joint at $1.10/hour because my pastor gave the manager a good recommendation.
When I would go up to Santa, who was receiving children at the mall, the first question he would ask me was, “Have you been a good boy?” And I would answer, “Yes.” Because I had truly been what people back then called a “good boy.”
When I was little, I believed in Santa in the sense that he existed, lived at the North Pole and slid down chimneys with at least some of the presents I had asked for. It did not dawn on me to question how he could slide down a chimney that did not exist in our house. Back then, fantasy and reality all mushed together, and I swallowed all of it — hook, line and sinker.
Then somewhere in my grade school years, I stopped believing that Santa was a real person who lived at the North Pole and somehow knew whether I had been a good boy or not. But I still believed in the myth. I believed that there was a moral order in the universe, for which Santa was simply a metaphor — and good boys would get rewarded and bad boys would get punished.
I had been a good boy, Pastor Anderson had noticed, and I got my first job at Henry’s Hamburgers.
Then I went to college and my innocent, naïve bubble burst. My Newtonian picture of the universe which made it seem like a predictable, dependable machine was destroyed. The destruction began when I was a high school sophomore sitting in Mr. Kanzelberger’s English class and the principal came on the PA system and told us that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
Then I read about the Holocaust and the war in Vietnam. Then my father died at 50 years old because of a botched surgery.
Kafka’s story, “Metamorphosis,” began to make a lot of sense as a new myth to replace the one about the Jolly Old Elf. It’s the story about a young man who goes to bed and when he wakes up the next morning, he’s a beetle lying on his back with his little legs flailing in the air. No reason given. No logic. Just random absurdity.
As I grew older, I found that the Kafka absurdity myth didn’t work in real life either. Sure, my dad’s death made no sense at all, but on the other hand, my hard work in college earned me the President’s Prize scholarship with a free ride in seminary.
Life after all did make sense. Some of the time.
At 74 years old, I find myself telling my grandchildren the Santa Claus story I no longer believe. Maybe it’s what psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance, but I think there is a healthier explanation.
Reason is not capable of figuring out how life works. Not completely. Neither does cynicism.
Dr. King did not say that he had the latest data on human nature and they lead to the logical conclusion that “one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
He said, “I have a dream.” And the dream came from his imagination. It was not empirically verifiable but at the same time it was not just a fantasy that mature adults let go of around the age of 6 or 8 or 10.
James Fowler in Stages of Faith said that some of us as we get near the end of our lives, enter into what he called “a second naivete.” For example, I once believed that Jonah really was swallowed by a whale, lived inside its belly and was thrown up onto land. Then, as I grow more “sophisticated,” I put that on my mental shelf along with Santa Claus.
Now I again believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and to me it doesn’t matter whether it “really” happened or not. If you ask me how I can believe it, I will answer, “Because it has happened to me. I have tried to run away from what God was calling me to do, I paid for it, and after three days — you catch the image? — I returned to life chastened and with my soul in a better place.
And I find that fantasy sometimes reveals truth in ways that reason cannot. That explains, at least in part, the popularity of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. Quote: “Pessimistic about the future of Middle- Earth, Elrond claims that the time of the elves is over, the dwarves are too selfish to help, and men are weak.”
I’m a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia. In one chapter the children are hiding from the wicked witch in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, when Mr. Beaver comes home all excited. “What’s up?” ask the children.
“Aslan has returned.”
“Who is Aslan?” ask the children.
“Aslan is a lion.”
“A lion?” ask the children. “Is he safe?”
“No,” replies Mr. Beaver, “he’s not safe, but he’s good.”
Wow! Find me a book of non-fiction that reveals truth better than that little scene.
There are other stories to be told this Christmas than the one about Santa or the one by Kafka or the one portrayed on TV commercials. Some may sound like fantasies, but then again, they may be true in very profound ways.