[Nyerges is the author of several books and blogs. He can be reached at www.ChristopherNyerges.com.]
Christmas was always a special time, though in my very earliest memories, there were no religious overtones. I was taken to church every Sunday, of course, but the Christmas decorations and gatherings were all something that happened at home, not at church. When I was too young to speak, I realized that Christmas was the season that happened during the coldest time of the year, and it meant that we’d have a fire going in the fireplace, people would be coming over, and there’d be lots of gifts and food. The food was cookies, tangerines, and walnuts.
One of my earliest Christmas memories was when I was told that Santa Claus would come to our home and bring gifts, and that he had some way to figure out where I lived. I didn’t know exactly why, but there was a great mystery about this fat, bearded, red-suited Santa man. People spoke about him in hushed tones, and would even sometimes stop talking about him when I came near.
My brother Tom told me that Santa Claus would come down the chimney – something I found hard to believe considering how fat he appeared in the pictures. We both peered up into our fireplace one day and wondered how Santa could get through the narrow passageway. We didn’t even think that we would be able to crawl through there.
“Plus, doesn’t dad have a screen over the top of the chimney to keep the pigeons out?” Tom asked. I didn’t know. “I hope he remembers to remove it for Santa.”
On Christmas Eve, our dad showed us a plate of cookies and a pot of coffee that had been set out for Santa.
We barely slept, and I tried to not sleep so I could be the first to rush out and catch a glimpse of this Santa. But I fell asleep, and Tom woke me and Rick. We jumped out of bed, and ran down the hall. We weren’t particularly interested in gifts, but we wanted to catch Santa. We were too late, but the three of us carefully examined the remaining evidence. There were no cookies left on the plate – only crumbs – and there was only a small amount of coffee left in the cup. Tom held the cup and carefully peered into it, and then Rick and I stared into the cup, the proof that Santa had come and departed.
“See?” said Tom. We all continued to stare into the cup a while longer, as if it might reveal some secrets to us.
In a few more years, I noticed that people didn’t fully hide their comments from me when speaking about Santa Claus.
“He believes in Santa Claus?” was met with muffled response. What an odd question, I thought. Why shouldn’t I believe in Santa Claus?
When I actually learned about this mythical aspect of Christmas, I did go through a period of confusion and even anger at the world of make-believe perpetrated entirely by adults and foisted upon me. I suppose I felt bad because I really wanted to believe in Santa Claus, and I felt that he was a positive figure. And I had been told to “be good” for Santa Claus, and that Santa Claus knew everything I was doing. I was very puzzled by all this, but I got over it.
In fact, I felt very uplifted when I learned that there was an actual historical person upon which Santa Claus was based: a Catholic bishop in Asia Minor (Turkey) of the 3rd century named Nikolaos of Myra gave gifts to poor newlyweds around Christmas time. A century or so later, sainthood was bestowed upon him, and he was known as Saint Nicholas. In honor of this very real person, people began to give gifts to others, especially others in need, during the Christmas season and say it was “from Saint Nicholas.” What a wonderful story! What would have been wrong with telling me that historical story rather than the garbled mythology?