The Divine Santa Dichotomy

How faith and uncertainty can merrily coexist

Illustration by Celine Loup

It was Christmas morning. I was ten, and I’d awoken to quite a scene. On the floor were pieces of computer printer paper (you know, the wide sheets with perforated holes along the sides from back in the day). They were strewn in the pattern of steps and on each piece was a big boot print of soot.

At first, in my drowsy state, I was thrilled to be faced with this huge display of Santa’s arrival right when I walked into the living room. Everything I’d dreamed of the night before was right in front of me. But then, I began to wonder…

Hang on a sec. Why would Santa take out my dad’s computer paper to walk on? Wouldn’t that be tedious? What was the point? Besides, wouldn’t that take up precious time? I mean, he has to visit every house in the world. Seconds count for Santa.

I was already having my reservations about Santa. My friends were too. Even my little cousin was questioning it.

And so this stream of inquiry filled my mind. I hated the questions I was asking myself. This was horrible.

Stop it, Jonas, I told myself. Enjoy the morning.

So I did. I got my head back in the game and tore into my presents. The ceremonial opening of gifts continued for some time. Decimated wrapping paper covered the floor. It’s A Wonderful Life played on the television.

Christmas was such a magical day. Being an only child, we usually had my aunt, uncle, and cousins over to liven things up for Christmas eve, but on Christmas morning, it was just the three of us. It was small. Intimate. My parents were in their sweats for longer than usual and we watched the same rotation of Christmas movies we’d watched each year prior.

But as soon as the morning slowed down, those questions came boomeranging back.

So I looked for a window of opportunity to talk to my mom — alone. She was always the easiest one to have tough conversations with. My dad was direct. Very direct. My mom was much softer.

While my dad was distracted putting batteries in my electric toys, I cajoled her to the kitchen, out of earshot from my dad, and asked her the question: “What’s up with the footprint thing? Why’d Santa — you know — do all that?”

My mom was a wise woman. Like, sage-wise. As I asked the question, I saw in the gleam in her eye that she knew exactly where I was going with this.

I’d forced her into a corner and was expecting some push-back. This was the moment of reckoning. My Santa Claus days hung in the balance. What she was about to say would determine the survival or death of the Christmas spirit in our house forevermore.

After the question left my lips, there was a short moment of silence. I thought I knew what would happen next, but instead of taking a combative stance with hands on hips and firing back with an argument, my mom knelt down and leaned in closer to me. Connection established.

I don’t remember the exact words in the conversation that followed. It’s been awhile. But the essence of it — the poignancy of her words — has stuck in my soul like an arrow to the heart.

She asked me if I liked Santa Claus. Right out of the gate, she had me on my heels.

“Of course I do,” I told her. “I LOVE Santa Claus.”

She went on to ask me if I enjoyed the build-up to the big day, like making a list and putting out cookies (and carrots for the reindeer, of course).

I answered affirmatively. Heck yes. Loved it.

She asked if I felt that warm feeling in my heart when we’d go out on the porch and try to look for Santa’s sleigh through my dad’s binoculars (I swear we actually saw it one time) and the giddiness of going to bed early to make way for the big guy to squeeze down the chimney and deliver gifts.

Totally. I LOVED the magic of Christmas.

Being an only child, my best friend was my imagination and Santa was like racing fuel for mine.

“Yeah, Mom, of course I do,” I told her, nodding excessively.

“Exactly,” she said. She went on to explain to me that this is what Santa Claus is all about: the excitement, the stories, the preparation, and the fun things we did together as a family to get ready for his arrival that chilly night.

“Christmas,” she said, “is that warm place in your heart and Santa is a big part of that.”

I was tracking — this was good. Then came my mother’s closing note. The crescendo to our transformative dialogue.

“I can tell you whatever I want to tell you. But I’ll just say this… I’m a grown-up and I still believe in Santa. So does your dad. Santa is what makes mornings like this possible. Not only does Santa bring presents. Santa brings magic. The magic of you and me and Dad sitting in front of a fireplace wondering what just happened — these are all the gifts Santa brings that are real. Very real.”

There was a pause before she continued. She was searching for the words to close the discussion on the very best note.

“You’re at the age where people might try to convince you otherwise. You might even try to convince yourself otherwise. But I hope you’ll realize that Santa is real and can stay real even in the face of all of that. Keeping the magic alive is worth believing, Jonas. It’ll make your future Christmases much brighter.”

Mind...blown.

Standing there in the face of my questioning was a thing called faith. And it felt amazing.

I realized that seeing and believing were very fuzzy, gray, complicated terms. Two different sides of me were seeing two different things. My doubt had honed in on the suspicion of those soot-covered pieces of old-school computer paper. I could have left it at that. But something higher in me — the part that my mom was speaking to — saw beyond that to a warm family tradition and the fascination that Santa Claus had brought to it. My faith was restored. Moreover, this faith felt better amidst my uncertainty than it did during my certainty — because it meant Santa could live forever.

My mom passed away six years later, when I was 16. But that moment on Christmas morning 27 years ago has stuck with me to this day. It was one of our most precious moments together.

Looking back, what strikes me is my mother’s lucidity in the way she handled that discussion. She was fully present and took it to heart. As a parent myself today, I now understand why. She was preserving my most valuable tool to this day — my imagination.

That morning, I got from my mom that this life has many unexplained, weird, beautiful mysteries. But at the end of the day, we’re going to tell ourselves a story. Which story we end up believing creates the context of our lives.

Is life going to be entirely a practical, linear, commonsensical place with insurance bills and time clocks and new movies and food on the table?

Or are we going to make room for a magical, deeply human, weird, fun, enchanting, beautifully unexplainable place?

Because this, I learned, is Santa Claus. This is the magic of belief.

The #SantaProject is a movement to keep the story of Santa Claus alive on the Internet. Join by responding with your own story about the magic of belief. To learn more about the #SantaProject, visit macys.com/believe.