Starting when I was very young, my parents convinced me that Santa Claus visits our house every Christmas Eve. I, a young girl with an overactive imagination, totally bought into the idea. With each passing year, I learned to love the feeling of anticipation, of not knowing what surprises awaited me under our Christmas tree. One year, I even convinced myself that I heard sleigh bells jingling on our roof during the night.
My parents shared in this spirit of Santa, too. On Christmas Eve, we would leave cookies and milk in front of our fireplace for Santa (and carrots for the reindeer), and on Christmas morning, I would wake up to find that the cookies, carrots, and milk had disappeared. My brother and I would sit by the computer all day, tracking Santa’s journey with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). When I was around nine years old, imagine my surprise when an Elf on the Shelf appeared in our nativity. I wrote him notes, and my parents would always write back to me, pretending to be the elf, and would move him to a new location in our house at night.
I think that even as early as nine years old, when that Elf on the Shelf appeared, I had serious doubts about Santa’s existence. How exactly did he fit down the chimney? How did he know what I wanted for Christmas? How did he know if I had been naughty or nice? One thing was for sure: I knew that magic does not exist, so therefore, Santa Claus could not exist, either.
However, I clung to this belief in the impossible. Why? It symbolized my childhood. When I finally admitted to myself and to my parents that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were figments of my imagination, I faced the fact that I had inevitably begun to grow up.
On the other hand, denying Santa Claus’s existence made me enjoy Christmas in a different way. I recognized the joy of giving gifts and became less interested in receiving them. I also enjoyed pretending that Santa was real for the sake of my younger brothers. I was “in” on it; I felt privy to some great secret with my parents. Maybe growing up was not so bad after all.
The story of Santa and his association with giving gifts has its roots in history. According to history.com, a monk by the name of St. Nicholas was the original Santa Claus. St. Nicholas, born around A.D. 280, traveled throughout modern-day Turkey and became known as the protector of children and sailors. In the past, followers of St. Nicholas believed that the anniversary of his death—December 6—presented an opportune time for marriage and large purchases.
St. Nicholas rose to popularity in the United States during the late 18th century. In December 1773 and 1774, Dutch families in New York gathered to honor the anniversary of the saint’s death. The Dutch knew St. Nicholas as “Sinter Klaas”—sound familiar? He quickly became a part of popular culture in New York.
In 1822, the poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore popularized today’s version of Santa: a jolly, fat man who rises through chimneys and pilots a reindeer-led sleigh.
As soon as the early-to mid-1800s, advertisers used images of Santa Claus to market holiday shopping items, much like they do today. Furthermore, these stores attempted to lure children and their parents by promising a meeting with a real-life Santa Claus. To this day, visiting Santa at the mall and sitting on his lap remains a popular holiday tradition for children and their families across the United States.
And Santa Claus is not the only supernatural gift-giver. According to an article from the BBC, many countries worldwide have their own versions of Santa Claus. In Finland, a goat named Joulupukki—the Yule goat—who was once a man rewards well-behaved children with presents.
Similar characters commemorate the Epiphany, which is the Christian celebration of when the three kings delivered their gifts to Jesus. La Befana, a caring Italian witch, presents children with gifts and candy on Epiphany Eve, the night before January 6. Also on January 6, Los Reyes Magos, the three kings, march through the streets of Spanish towns, handing out treats to children.
The idea of a benevolent character presenting well-behaved children with sweets or presents has transcended international boundaries. It is this spirit of giving—and, for the kids, receiving—that truly makes December a magical time for us Americans.
This Christmas, my youngest brother is nine years old. It is only a matter of time before he stops believing in Santa, too. It will be nice to soon talk about Santa without the burden of keeping a mammoth secret, but at the same time, I like watching Will experience the magic of Christmas, the magic of Santa Claus. For now, he still runs around the house every morning in his excitement to locate our Elf on the Shelf.
Unfortunately, not all parents can share the magic of Santa Claus with their children, whether for financial reasons or due to other obstacles. But I am grateful for the fact that my parents had the ability to give me Santa. I am grateful that my parents lied to me about the existence of this man for a good ten years.
One day, I know that I, too, will lie to my own children about this man who sneaks into our house via the chimney, eats our cookies, and then leaves after depositing gifts under our tree. In doing so, I will provide them with that magical innocence that I, too, experienced in my childhood. And one day, when they are older, they will fondly remember those positive feelings of anticipation and excitement over receiving presents and will readily give gifts to others.
At 18 years old, I still believe in Santa Claus—or at least in the spirit of giving.