Dear Tyler and Bryce,
Watching The Polar Express with you last week, about a boy with doubts who comes to believe in the magic of Christmas, I realized it’s only a matter of time before you unlock the secret of Santa Claus. This letter is for that time, whenever it happens, probably a year or two from now. It’s an old story that we all believed at one time. Some feel betrayed at first because they believed it more deeply than others. Maybe the two of you fall into that category.
Adults are co-conspirators because we can’t resist telling the story. Someday you will too. It wasn’t Santa Claus we wanted you to believe in. It’s the magic of Christmas, and Santa is the first embodiment of that magic — but not the last.
We weren’t lying to you. A lie is an untruth told with the worst of intentions, often with hurtfulness behind it. The story of Santa is told to children with the best of intentions. But with or without Santa, Christmas is magical. In some ways, it’s more magical without him. It’s hard to let go of such a wondrous, saintly figure so completely dedicated to making children happy worldwide, without feeling some sense of loss. I felt it too, once upon a childhood.
But there’s an upside to all this. Christmas makes more sense. You know who is giving you all these presents. People with the best of intentions are showering you with gifts once a year because something called Christmas makes them extraordinarily generous. People who love you very much. They give and give and it makes them happy because they love to see you happy. That’s as magical as a jolly old elf winging his way around the world, sliding down chimneys. Santa is a wonderful story, but as we get older, we gradually come to redefine what “magic” means.
You will always have a tender place for Santa in your memory, which has enough magic stored in it to take you back to that time in your life whenever you want to revisit it.
I hope you’ll forgive us for telling a story that we still want to believe as much as you do. Is it worth the letdown? I think so. Stories come out of a place deep in our imagination. They aren’t literally “true” but a lot of truth is found there. So Santa exists, just in other ways. He is the spirit of extraordinary generosity, the spirit of life’s magic and mystery, which can never be exhausted. You will discover this as you grow older. We all do, those of us who keep our hearts open to life and living. Yes, some mysteries will be explained away and some of the magic will not prove worthy of your belief. But you will find treasures where you least expected to — people, for instance, whom you will come to love and trust, and who will never betray that trust, even if others do.
You will discover that Santa lives on through your own generosity. The Santa inside doesn’t mess around with all that naughty-or-nice nonsense. The Santa inside gives people the benefit of the doubt. After all, those who aren’t nice end up putting coal in their own stockings, because living a life that isn’t Santa-like is its own form of punishment.
If you’re generous with others, you’ll receive gifts in return: the gifts of self-regard and self-respect and the satisfaction of helping others feel a little better about themselves.
A long time ago, a girl named Virginia O’Hanlon — who was 8 years old, just like you were when I wrote this — sent a letter to her local newspaper asking if there really was a Santa Claus.
Frank Church, a writer at the paper, was given the unenviable assignment of answering her. It was a pretty good answer:
“He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist,” Church wrote in 1897 (so you can see how old this story is), “and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. … Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. … Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”
Abiding means it lasts. Sometimes it endures even beyond our disbelief. As I get older, I know what’s true because it usually brings me to tears. The good kind of tears. Tears of joy.
So welcome to the club, a very large club indeed — those who still believe in what Santa stands for: Laughter, generosity, and love, especially the love of children. After all, a child’s birth is the reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place.
Turns out, the magic wasn’t in Santa after all. Santa just made it easier for you to experience the magic of Christmas. And Christmas makes it easier to experience the magic that is alive in our everyday.
Magic is all around if you know where to look. It can be as surprising as a beautiful flower growing in a place you didn’t expect to find flowers. It can be as glorious as a blazing sunset that catches your eye for the first time in a long time, or a shooting star streaking across the night sky. Or it can be as simple as the smiles on the faces of two boys as they wrap their arms around you. Every day is magical when I’m with the two of you.
Don’t worry. Like the boy in the movie, you’ll still hear the sound of that sleigh bell no matter how old you are. I still do. It’s OK to believe. Not all our beliefs turn out to be literally true, but often they lead us to the things we can truly believe in. Things we can’t always see, beautiful things that make life magical.
And those are the greatest Christmas presents of all.