The Santa cause
Does Santa really exist? Of course, says Alex Kane, who wishes we could all return to those simpler days of our childhood when we believed without the need for proof
In September 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun, asking him: "Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?" The editor's response became the most reprinted editorial in any English-language newspaper - the stuff of legend, in fact.
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.
There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry and no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
We know the name. We've seen the roly-poly shopping centre doppelgangers. We've seen the advertising billboards and the films (hundreds of them).
Parents still "play the game" and encourage their younger children to leave out the carrots and cookies - while the older brothers and sisters play along and quietly wish that they still believed. We hang up the stockings and cover shelves and mantlepieces with Santa cards and knick-knacks.
That's an awful lot of effort for someone we know so little about.
So, who is Santa Claus? The legend can be traced back to the third century and a monk, whom we now know as St Nicholas, who lived and travelled through modern-day Turkey, helping people and giving away all of his considerable inherited wealth.
Over the centuries his popularity - due, almost certainly, to the increasingly embellished word-of-mouth stories about him and his generosity - spread, and his feast day, December 6, is still regarded as a 'lucky' day.
By the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe and even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints was discouraged in many countries, he remained popular.
The Dutch nickname for Saint Nicholas was Sinter Klass and it wasn't long before Dutch immigrants in New York, along with other nationalities in that great multi-cultural melting pot of a city, began to refer to him as Santa Claus.
But the big turning-point in terms of the Santa we know today was the poem, 'An Account Of A Visit From St Nicholas', written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister:
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name,
Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen,
On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen.
And the rest of it was there, too. St Nick coming down the chimney. The sack of toys. The white beard. The rosy cheeks. The twinkling eyes.
"The little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly". And, of course, the closing lines:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.
Within a few years, Moore's depiction of St Nicholas had been commercialised into Santa - "a real good, easy to say brand name in almost any language", according to a former manager of Macy's department store - and the big American stores began building their Christmas grottos from around the 1830s.
The publication of Dickens' A Christmas Carol back in 1843 also had a huge impact; because although none of the ghosts were depicted as Santa Claus, it became standard practice for later illustrators to use Claus as the model for the Ghost of Christmas Present or the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
Of course, once the advertising and entertainment industries had taken Santa under their wing it became necessary to give him a back story to explain: 1) where the toys came from and how they were made; 2) where he lived; 3) how he managed to get all of the presents delivered in a single night; 4) how he survives in a world of increasing cynicism, particularly from children; and 5) does he have a wife and children?
And so the original St Nicholas was shifted from the warm climate of Turkey to the freezing wastelands of Lapland and the North Pole - the sort of place most people, including scientists, found impossible to penetrate. He was given supernatural powers to suspend time until he had finished his deliveries.
Happy elves were introduced to explain the non-stop production lines for toys. A Mrs Claus began to appear in the literature, although only to "stop him seeming lonely and maybe too eccentric against a background in which happy families are the core of the Santa legend".
Cynicism was addressed by encouraging children to believe (the approach of the New York Sun editorial): and by the, ironically very cynical, commercial suggestion that "belief would guarantee the real present you want to get on Christmas Day".
Has anyone ever seen the real Santa? Who knows? Does it even matter if there is no evidence of an actual existence? No. And that's because Santa doesn't live in some sort of limbo: rather, he is an omnipresent and unstoppable life force.
Santa is more than Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Fagin, Heathcliff, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Harry Potter, Mr Darcy, Robin Hood, Mr Pooter, Jeeves, Ivanhoe, Captain Ahab, Atticus Finch, or any of a hundred other characters who, once encountered, stay somewhere in what Sherlock Holmes would have described as "our brain attic".
In other words, Santa has taken on a life of his own. We accept that he is real. We accept that he has a part to play in our lives - however brief it may be.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Santa legend - the only word to use when truth and myth combine - is that the older we become, the more we wish we could return to those simpler days when we believed without the need for proof.
Santa summed up hope, expectation, joy, wonder and magic. What parent hasn't blinked back a tear when their children have stumbled from bed in search of the Santa present?
What parent hasn't had the lump-in-the-throat moment when they remember that their own parents used to do the same thing for them?
And who hasn't thought, "Wasn't it so much nicer when we didn't have to charge around the town for weeks on end?" Maybe that's why we still gather round the television to watch It's A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Carol.
Santa is bigger than the advertisers and moneymen. He's bigger than the relentless cynicism of the modern world. He's bigger than his own contrived back-story.
He's bigger than the facts and fiction that surround him. Santa exists. That's all there is to it.
So, as he'll whisper in all of our ears (even if we're too embarrassed to admit it) in the early hours of the 25th: "Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night."
A life so far
Santa is immortal
He lives in our hearts and old memories
He's proof that cynicism can be trumped
He really does know the difference between naughty and nice
He never forgets
His favourite song is Fairytale Of New York