No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. But here's a Christmas story with dogs, tears, politics, parents, tinsel and a traveling tree.
In the long ago Christmas of 1897, a New York Sun reporter named Francis Church answered a letter from eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon who asked if there was a Santa Claus. Church famously replied, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist," going on to celebrate the imagination as a real force in life, paying tribute not only to Santa but to woodland fairies dancing on the lawn. He advised little Virginia to believe in such fantasy figures, for without such beliefs man is but an insect, a veritable ant. Now that could make a Santa believer out of any kid. Who wouldn't be scared of being squashed underfoot by joining an insect colony of non-believers? The error in Church's reply was equating Santa, the mythical jolly bearer of gifts for kiddies, with love, generosity, and devotion, the best and deepest of our feelings. Magical thinking more often brings out crafty Republican politicians who exploit fantasies, prejudice and fears to win elections. Think Karl Rove as your Santa exploiter, and weep.
I don't know much about the America of 1897, but I do know that we had a Democratic president then rather than a demonic one. It was an America that officially welcomed immigrants, although there was a lot of nativist feeling against them. Pick up any newspaper of that period and you will read editorials condemning the great unwashed who had newly arrived at our shores, and were regarded by the old guard as dangerous spreaders of disease, foreign ideologies, and crime. Italians, Jews, and particularly the Irish, Virginia's own ancestors, all took their turn at being the despised ones. Nevertheless, it was our then-Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, who ordered an investigation into the all powerful railroads that were truly oppressing the country, a president who didn't join hands with the mighty but challenged them for their greed. America was a most imperfect place then with its racial injustice and its treatment of women, and Little Virginia may have needed a dose of Santasy just to keep going. But we are now in different, if not better times, so I'd like to answer Virginia's inquiry with my own personal reply. Sorry to tell you this but "No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus," at least not as that journalist represented him to you in 1897. What follows are my ruminations on Santa 2007; be warned, Virginia, this goes from cat food to Access Hollywood with some politics and a stop over at my own childhood Christmas thrown into the mix.
Dear Virginia, last Saturday my wife and I left our apartment to buy dry cat food for Byron, the sedentary Abyssinian feline who now rules my family's life from his cushion on the ottoman with his ever-demanding stomach The Petco store on 86th Street was right across town from where you once lived. Had you been there you would have seen a Santa posing for digital photographs with a large poodle in his lap, the dog sporting a collar of silver bells. A line of miniature pinchers, Pomeranians and Schnauzers draped with Christmas garlands, some wearing red velvet Santa caps, together with some distraught German Shepherds wearing false white beards, sat uneasily waiting for their photo-op with the merry old guy whose hand had a suspicious bandage on it.
Santa was there to sell tins of dog-food, chewable dried pig's ears from China, and non-toxic pet-toys (we hope) and had nothing to do with the joys of the season or with your innocent imagination. Virginia, beware of that old Ho! Ho! Huckster. The truth is Santa has a long record of acting as a shill for dubious items such as cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes or a gold Tiffany bracelet for a randy politician's mistress, delivered not by sleigh but by a NYC police car at taxpayer's expense. Santa lives because American commerce demands that he stay alive, although, sad to say, he is now old, ailing, and quite troubled. And yes Virginia, the Republican candidates need Santa to soften you up for a faith-based vote when you are of voting age. They figure if you keep on believing in Santa you may end up voting for an animated store-dummy like Mitt Romney, a fear-mongering immoralist like Rudy Giuliani, or a ridiculous fantasy figure like Ho! Ho! Ho-ly Huckabee. They will want you to use some faith-based voting machine that leaves no material record of existence behind, just like those spirits dancing on the lawn, now you see 'em, now they're gone without a trace. So, Virginia, I am obliged to tell you that a belief in Santa may be okay for toddlers, Poodles, Pomeranians and miniature pinschers, but now that you are eight, it's time to paste Santa in your scrapbook and move on. All of which brings me to my Santa-saturated childhood, and my own memory book, sparked by a memoir about my early life that I have been writing called Spotless, not named for my impeccable character but for my mother's kitchen floor.
In the mid-1930s, Virginia, when I was a small boy growing up in New York City, we children went to bed early but I was allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve to listen to Lionel Barrymore play Scrooge in a radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol. This was followed by my mother reading to me and my older sister, Simone, from a vibrantly illustrated edition of A Visit From St. Nicholas more familiarly known as The Night Before Christmas. My family loved that poem, and it was clear that my mother loved it more than any of us. It was not a poem that a woman born a Jew in a Czarist Russian village was supposed to read to her children, even though she had as great a craving for the fantastic as either of her small children, or you, Virginia. Nor was that short, stout and fragrant evergreen in our living room supposed to be standing there, covered in shiny silver tinsel and candy canes from the local Woolworths, flanked by piles of gifts for my sister and me.
It was quite the sight watching my mother try to hide that Christmas tree in the bathtub when she learned that her censorious older sister, Ida, was coming over for a short visit. At that time it was common for sisters, spinster friends of the family whom we called Aunts, noisy loving uncles and stubble chinned grand-fathers to come calling unannounced to deliver wet, annoying holiday kisses on children's cheeks, while pressing more welcome coins into our small hands. When they were seen approaching our door through a ground floor window, that tree was rushed out of the living room into that bathtub, leaving a tell-tale trail of pine needles, tinsel and candy-canes on the floor, about which no one ever commented but it doubtless raised many suspicions. When the guests had left and the all clear sounded, the tree was then dragged back again to the living room and set straight in its stand. So many of our visitors were elderly, people who had been raised in European ghettos, without an inkling that Santa ever existed, but they knew enough about a Christmas tree to view it as an enemy to their traditional faith. Nevertheless, they were welcomed warmly into our house by my parents. There was no recycling bin for old folks then, no such thing as a senior-citizens community; AARP (or was it Arrf?) was what Little Orphan Annie's dog Sandy barked in the funny pages and most of us lived in a messy, noisy, but exhilarating human mix, a cacophony of generations. Although my folks always went to Temple on the High Holidays to say prayers for their dead, we ate bacon for breakfast, mixed dairy and meat in a single meal, and used any dishes that happened to be clean and at hand. It was clear to me as a child that they rarely observed the orthodoxy into which they had been born.
I know that in my parents' case Christmas and Santa, the gifts and the tree were non-sectarian; their children were their only true religion. Neither of my folks had what we call a childhood. When I was a 10-year-old, I once asked my father what his own childhood was like, he looked at me a bit puzzled and amused, saying, "Childhood, Sherman? What childhood? When I was your age they hadn't yet invented childhood."
Nathan, my father, worked at backbreaking menial jobs since he was a nine-year-old boy on the Lower East Side to help support a large immigrant family that had relocated from the slums of London to the slums of New York with no improvement in their lives. He was the eldest son, born in America into a family where there was always one new baby ahead of what his tailor father was able to feed. My own father rose from tenement poverty into a comfortable middle class life by his own hard work, sharp wit and intelligence; all of which he modestly called his good luck.
My mother, Lillian, arrived in this country as a three-year-old refugee from the Czarist pogroms, and watched her mother and her favorite older brother and sister die of tuberculosis when she was not yet in her teens. Her father struggled to support his surviving children with such odd jobs as a welder and painter on the Brooklyn Bridge, then as a night watchman in a factory, and like everyone else who could thread a needle in those days, he worked as a tailor in a sweatshop. He was a large, handsome man, confounded by the God he believed in, the God who had taken his wife and children despite his fervent prayers. The only gift my mother ever received in her childhood came from an African-American teacher who gave her a rag doll at Christmas as a reward for her exquisite handwriting, but mainly because she had learned that my mother's mother had recently died. My mother was obliged to leave school at 12 to go to work as an assistant to an aunt who was a seamstress, in order to help support her still younger brothers. That's the way it was for people who were too poor to even call themselves working class.
My mother's classic beauty would be her ticket out of that Lower East Side ghetto as she soon worked as a showroom model and later as a store manager uptown. It was her beauty that undoubtedly caught my father's eye, and thanks to their imperfect union, I sit here today at my laptop writing to you, Virginia, about the Santa Claus who isn't. My aunt would caution my mother that she was spoiling us on Hanukkah -- spoiling us by providing us with so many toys, books and paint sets, and all that talk of Santa, but my mother ignored her as she ignored anyone she took for a fool by smiling, nodding, and doing just as she pleased. She also bought toys for Ida's daughters for the holidays, but these wary children kept them in their original boxes, never to be played with, distrustful of generosity, suspicious of joy, and to my mother, it was these girls who were spoiled.
I now know what my mother then knew, having been twice a father and once a grandfather, that children are only spoiled by the withholding of love and approval, and by selfishness and cruelty, not by receiving too many or too few toys. My parents' aim was for us to survive our childhood illnesses for which there were then few vaccines, no penicillin or antibiotics, and grow to adulthood slowly, very slowly, so that we could savor our long childhood and they could take their pleasure in watching it happen. We were advised never to think of ourselves as better than anyone, even though it was evident that my child-beguiled parents believed that we were better than any children they had ever seen. And, of course, we grew up much too quickly.
I can recall my mother cooking meals straight from Campbell's soup cans bought at the local A&P, and often forgetting to add the designated milk or water, but I remember that her decency was made from scratch. She hated racism, and all forms of discrimination. Her idols were Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson, both of whom my mother saw as exemplars of true female beauty, regarding her own Hollywood-style beauty as a mere accident of birth. She came from a generation that loved laughter but didn't understand or appreciate irony. For all her brilliant smiles, she knew that life was a serious business. When you told her a joke she chuckled politely, and changed the subject as soon as possible. The only time I ever heard her curse was after the dreadful news of the Holocaust came through to us in all its horror in America. Alas, Virginia, we learned that there was no Santa for the Anne Franks of Europe during our comfortable times in New York.
My father, Nathan, was far more complicated than his wife. He was a decent man by the standards of his own time, and I dare say ours, a man who hired the handicapped and African Americans -- yes he called them "cripples" and "colored" like everyone else in those pre-PC times, but he paid them fair wages in his flourishing business, the same salary as his able-bodied white employees, a generosity hard to match during that great Depression. This was a man who could explode with anger without warning, and immediately apologize for his outburst. He loved to tell tall tales, real whoppers, but never stories that hurt anyone or made him the hero of his own world. His generosity knew no limits, and how he adored my young sons and my sister's daughter. My mother was his equal in loving kindness in every way. The last day of her life was spent carrying food to some elderly, sick woman she scarcely knew, when she, my mother, was suddenly struck and killed by an out-of-control car on a busy New York City street-corner. That was the day I earned my Master's Degree in grief.
They were no saints; he had that fierce temper, something for us kids to reckon with, she had a stubborn streak that would drive him wild. She saw danger for her children lurking around every corner; pneumonia if we went out in the snow to play too long, polio if we went into crowds; abduction if we were not closely watched since I had the bad luck to be born at the time of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. I am afraid that the headline in her head was "Yellen Baby Kidnapped" and it kept her from sleep many a night. They were flawed human beings, but they were able to look beyond their own limited lives to help people who didn't have a bit of what they called luck. Most of all they both had the gift of empathy, somewhat akin to poetic imagination, something that does not require an Ivy League education. I bring this up, Virginia, because I want you to know that for me, Christmas was much more than that traveling tinseled tree, the model trains, the Lincoln Logs, the Tinker-Toys and that poem about Santa. It will forever be associated with my loving and sometimes difficult childhood family and my parents' plain old-fashioned, homemade decency. What strikes me now is not how extraordinary they were, but how wonderfully ordinary they seem. They didn't cure diseases, fight heroically in wars, or leave any masterpieces behind them. They were not busybody do-gooders; they simply did their good quietly, when needed, because that was how one lived one's life.
It is no surprise to me that they were unabashed liberals who voted with their hearts for the good of the country they loved and not for their own economic interests. When a newly rich uncle, my mother's younger brother, Albert, became a staunch Republican and railed against paying taxes that would help the unworthy poor, my mother considered him lost forever among the damned. My parents' fortunes changed. They died without much money in the bank, but what a grand inheritance they left for me and my late sister and their grandchildren.
Now Virginia, what gifts do our modern day Republican Santas bring us for Christmas? They offer more tax breaks for billionaires hidden in a fancy package; a greater disparity between those super-rich and the middle class, no real universal health insurance (except for that enjoyed by Congress and the President), and no plan to end the obscene Iraq war other than tossing more blood and treasure at it. There will be no goodies for the planet earth like clean air and water; and no poor child who isn't left behind, particularly inner-city children who struggle to make a life out of the detritus that our society leaves for them. With those grumbling but ultimately compliant Democratic elves standing passively by who needs Scrooge at Christmas? Obviously, Santa hasn't given me the gift of compassion towards these reprobates (nice, old-fashioned 1897 word reprobate) who would perpetuate the legacy of unremitting selfishness that our President, the bearer of such disastrous gifts as war and deregulated poverty, has left to this country.
I know that it gets harder to believe in the appeal of non-material virtues in our world of monster-size plasma TV sets, Access Hollywood and Donald Trump-ery; hard to believe that we are nothing more than what we have acquired; harder still to believe that we are a part of what we unabashedly used to call the family of man. Okay, enough stalling with the high-tone rhetoric, I can't put it off any longer, Virginia. Let's get to the hard, sad facts about Santa's condition in today's world.
Virginia, you might as well learn about it here before you read it in the tabloids or from a friend on Facebook, but Santa is now in rehab, or, as he prefers to say he is "in recovery." In the parlance of our time, Santa confesses that "mistakes were made" rather than owning up to a life delivering gifts to those who had the most and needed them the least, and by forgetting the needy he now feels himself to be an illusion, his life a lie. I am loath to tell you what he put in that little clay pipe of his to relieve the pain of his nothingness.
Santa's had a long, hard ride since 1897, Virginia, and that letter you wrote to The Sun hasn't helped him at all. I am certainly not blaming you for Santa's fall from grace. If Santa's brain was capable of rational thought these days he might tell you that life, Virginia, is not some costly gift, wrapped in shiny foil paper by elves at the North Pole. It is a hand-made, a little sloppy, somewhat crude, often unfair, but awfully satisfying when we are making it better for someone who has a lot less and needs our careful care.
Virginia, despite my family Christmas tales, my Santa bashing, and my political rant, I see that I've ended up in the same place that the journalist Francis Church did over one hundred years ago, asking you to put your faith in virtues that you can't quantify and don't often see; but unlike Church I don't ask you to value integrity and generosity as proof of the miraculous, but to demonstrate them in your own life as proof of your humanity. I am a lot more demanding of you, Virginia. Something more wondrous exists than an imaginary father figure flying through the night sky in a reindeer-driven sled delivering goodies for the good. It is you, Virginia, who have it within yourself to change the world. Like it or not, you are the only real Santa we can ever count on. We need to believe in you, our children and grand-children, more than ever. Just forget that ridiculous "Ho! Ho! Ho! and get to work cleaning up this ravaged and disorderly planet. It is hard work, and I know that you can't do it alone, but while you're working at it, have some fun. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Salam Alechem, and peace to all.