Wanting to Believe

In 1993, I was Santa Claus at the stylish Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times asked me to write a series of articles on the experience.  From the outset, it was a hit.  To read the text, skip below the photograph.

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When little Jessica, walked up to  my chair this week, she hugged me with such abandon, and sat on my knee and held my hand with such trust, that I knew she believed in Santa Claus with all her heart.

Jessica and I had a long talk.  At one point, she asked me how old I was.

“Older than time itself,” I said.

“I’m 4,” she said.

Before Jessica visited me, I would end each visit with, “Merry Christmas.”  After Jessica left, I began ending visits with, “I love you.”  As Santa Claus, there’s so much you learn.

There is a touching beauty in such total, blind belief.  Some people, however, consider such belief evil.  Last holiday season, KFI talk radio featured a guest who suggested The Santa Lie is an assault on children that marks the beginning of family dysfunction and leads to alcoholism, drug abuse, and worse.

Santa is a lie, of course.  And lies generally do lead to other lies.  For example, while visiting me at the Westside Pavilion this week, Kelly Hayes-Raitt of Santa Monica recalled a lie her father told her when she was 3.

“Dad came in the front door with a box that had a picture of a globe on the front,” Hayes-Raitt said.  “And I said, ‘Oh Daddy, you bought me a globe for Christmas!’  And Daddy put his finger to his lips and said, ‘Shhh, it’s a frying pan for Mommy.’  And I said, ‘No it’s not, look, it’s a globe for me.’  And Daddy said, ‘Shhh–no, it’s a frying pan for Mommy.'”

Of course, Daddy was lying: It was indeed a globe for his daughter and he was merely trying to preserve the surprise.  But this lie had a happy ending.  Over the next few years, the girl and her Dad spent many happy hours in front of that globe dreaming of foreign lands.

This week, I put a leading question to many of the children who visited me at the Westside Pavilion:

“You believe in Santa Claus, don’t you?”

Most of those under age 7 answered with a confident yes.  Still, they were precarious yeses, because by age 5, there seem to be a lot of rumors floating around the schoolyard questioning Santa Claus’ authenticity.

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“You believe in Santa Claus, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Ryan, 6.

“And all your friends do, too, don’t they?”

“No.”

“Oh no,” I said,  “What do they say?”

“That’s it’s just your Mom and Dad.  That they get up at midnight and put presents under the tree.”

“Touch my hand,” I said.  “See, I’m real.”

“I know.”

Sometimes, it’s the grownups who are the most determined to perpetuate belief.  A few days ago, I was talking to Steve, whose 7-year-old son Daniel still believed–“at least I think he does,” Steve said.  Then Daniel walked up.

“Daniel,” his father asked, “on Christmas Eve, who lands on the roof?”

Daniel smirked.

“A fake Santa,” he said.

This answer did not please Daniel’s father.

“Well then, who’s he?” Steve asked, pointing at me.

“A fake Santa,” he said.

“Touch my hand,” I said.  “See, I’m real.”

“You’re a real person, but you’re a fake Santa.”

Nothing was working.  This kid had all the angles covered.  That is when Steve came to the rescue.

“Well of course he’s fake,” Steve said.  “They have hundreds of fake Santas in malls all around the country.  Do you think they’d go to all that trouble if there weren’t a real Santa Claus?”

Daniel thought for a moment, confused.  It was the type of logic that’s so misargued that you can’t argue against it.  And it ended the discussion, which was a little victory in itself.

But in the end, it was a doomed battle, of course.  Sooner or later, every kid discovers the truth about Santa.  So why do we lie?

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The answer might be that, although Santa is technically a lie, there is actually more truth than lie in this whole Santa business.  In fact, it is much more appropriate to call it The Santa Myth, according to Maureen O’Sullivan, who has done research on the subject of deception for 20 years.

“There’s plenty of research to support the idea that when grownups talk to children, they speak in a different language,” said O’Sullivan, who is professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco.  “So when you’re trying to communicate abstract ideas, you’ll use analogies, metaphors, and the like in order to make them more concrete and understandable.  And Santa is something like that.

“Many of the Greek gods and goddesses were personifications of human characteristics–the god of war, the goddess of love, etc.  So Santa is a way of conveying a sense of wonder and magic that are present in the world, that despite all the bad things that happen, good things can happen too.”

As the Pavilion Santa Claus, I feel that quite strongly.  I work a 3-day weekend as Santa–Friday through Sunday–and time seems to float by like I’m walking through a dream.  More than a person, I’m an icon, like Zeus, or George Washington, or Barbie.

Two-year-old Samira knew I was an icon.  He toddled up to me, smiled, and waved.

“Hi, Christmas tree,” Samira said, waving at me.

Right holiday, wrong icon.

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Some older children believe in Santa Claus despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.  Tracy, 10 1/2 still believed, as did Clarissa, 9.  And they were not embarrassed to be seen sitting on Santa’s knee, either.

To a certain degree, children such as Tracy and Clarissa conspire with their parents to not know the truth, according to O’Sullivan.  They don’t just believe, they want to believe.  And when you believe in anything–a spouse, a god, a political movement, whatever–you lose a certain amount of street-smarts.  But when you disbelieve, you lose something, too.  You lose the ability to dream.

“What do you want for Christmas?” I asked.

I was talking to two 16-year-old best friends, Penny and Rahwa.

“To find love,” said Penny.  “And give me a new father, too.”