In some ways, I never believed in Santa Claus. In other ways, I still think he’s as real.
I figured out pretty early that it was impossible for Santa Claus, as a physical human being, to do all the things he was supposed to be able to do. I crafted every version of magical theory I could to try and make sense of it all, but I couldn’t come up with anything internally consistent enough to be satisfying. My parents agreed, and so the story in my house was that Santa used to be a real person who gave out presents, and parents then carried on the tradition in his name.
Nothing was ruined for me. I had just as much fun imagining historical Santa Claus as I did magical Santa Claus, and I loved playing the game – I wrote letters knowing they would go to my parents, and I left them cookies too. I pretended I heard reindeer on the roof, and listened for my dad to shake the jingle bells I knew he had by his bedside. I was in on the joke, but it still worked for me. And I think, actually, that it still does. As an idea, Santa Claus carries more weight (no pun intended), depth, joy, and truth than he ever could as a “real” person bound to the particularities of lived experience.
What it comes down to, really, is that Santa is magic, in the same way that linguistic concepts are inherently magic. Words are magic spells cast on our minds, calling up all sorts of ideas and connections and connotations without us having to move a mental muscle, allowing you to participate in an idea that goes far beyond any quantifiable or physical referent. Rousseau expresses this most clearly when he explains, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, that concepts can only really exist in your mind as words or phrases. The reality of thought is purely linguistic:
If you endeavour to trace in your mind the image of a tree in general, you never attain to your end. In spite of all you can do, you will have to see it as great or little, bare or leafy, light or dark, and were you capable of seeing nothing in it but what is common to all trees, it would no longer be like a tree at all.
While this leads Rousseau to disdain the overtly philosophical for its total remove of the referent, I think there’s something more positive – something beautiful – at work here. The turn to the ideal concept is a turn to knowledge that goes beyond the limitations of your immediate surroundings, and lets you participate in something larger.
To grab onto a general idea like “tree” lets you use that signifier to speak to anyone who also has that idea, whether the trees that are real for you have ever been real for your discussion partner. The physical, quantifiable things are only real for those who see it, while they are able to see it. Ideas marked by words and phrases can be real for everyone, everywhere, for all time – even if the linguistic marker shifts, it is still part of a larger network, wherein eventually, the word and the idea it represents meld together indecipherably, granting the power of the idea to the word by which it is signified.
Says St. Augustine, in his dialogue De Magistro (The Teacher):
To handle words with words is to interweave them like interlaced fingers: rubbing them together makes it hard to tell, except by each finger on its own, which is doing the itching and which the scratching.
In this way, words pull you subconsciously into a network of knowledge and community and history without you ever having to think like a philologist. I think that images can do much the same thing, and have real power over the way we think and see the world. As ideas need not have a physical presence in order to be real, neither, I think do characters and stories. And so I believe in Santa Claus, because I believe in everything he represents – imagination, joy, giving, tradition, magic – and because I believe in images that let us hold so many ideas together in our minds at once without us having to break them down into disparate parts.
And in this way the idea of Santa can become more real than just a collection of ideas held together under a jolly umbrella – it creates something new, something that can exist apart from the particularities of its inception and take a life of its own.
That’s the reason I believe in ideas, in stories, in magic, and even in Santa Claus.
- Why I believe in Santa Claus (chrismarkham.wordpress.com)
- Why I still believe in Santa Claus (buncheslife.wordpress.com)
- The Wonders and Physics of Santa Claus [Infographic] (infotainmentnews.net)