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Santa Claus and The Aging Child
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where is it written that Santa Claus is only for children? Why can’t he be there for the more jaded and life-worn among us as well? Read on to find that the old guy is everywhere, if you are really looking, that is.

I’ve heard it sardonically said "we are all children in aging skin." As comforting as this may sound, come the holidays and the child in all of us seems to creep outside all of our adult inhibitions and predilections. Even for people like myself who are not Christian, Santa and his magical sleigh have transformed themselves into a secular language that all of humankind can speak and understand. (Also reindeer and elfkind.) This is not to say that Christmas is not the holiest of times throughout the world at large, for it most certainly is. It’s just that Father Christmas is the universal epitome of dreams fulfilled fantasies untold and hopes for a more prosperous tomorrow. (Let’s not forget the fantasy of a fat old white codger sliding down the chimney; not as a burglar but as the granter of all material desires. What more could any aging child want?)

There are some sticky issues involving age-appropriate behavior and good old-fashioned guilt. Thoughts of Santa as well as Ebenezer Scrooge loom this glorious time of year. Most seem to deal with reaping and sowing and getting what we deserve for our behavior all year long. I’m sure we can all think about instances during the year when we could have been nicer or handled something better. Santa’s list in the adult mind is not "naughty or nice" but rather "guilty" which, I am afraid, is much more powerful and serious. Also, you can’t exactly go to visit Santa at Toyland and sit on his lap if you are 47 years old. Anyone over ten probably wouldn’t opt for that, but the 10-year-old in all of us still dreams of sugarplums and goodies that knit up the raveled, aging sleeves of care and get swallowed in aging mouths.

A television show of some years back comes to mind. Although I can’t be certain about all the twists of plot or the name of the series (perhaps Tales from the Dark Side), I do recall that Steven Spielburg directed this particular episode. It told the Christmas tale of a little boy who wanted a very special toy gun and a man who comes to town claiming to be St. Nick himself. The little boy has grown to be an angry and bitter but successful man in a position of power in the town. When confronted with the old man’s claim, he doesn’t believe him of course; that is until Christmas morning when he awakes to find the toy gun he always wanted sitting under his own Christmas tree. Whispers of Orson Welles and "Rosebud" abound, but still this tale endures with its own brand of enchantment.

But where did this nice old guy come from anyway and how did he capture our hearts? The American version has had many twists and turns, all attributed to its many immigrant influences. The Scandinavians, for example, brought to the New World the idea of gift-giving elves. The Germans brought not only their "Belsnickle" and "Chistkindle" but also their decorated trees. The Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted candle in the window.

In the 1600s the Dutch presented "Sinterklaas" (meaning St. Nicholas) to the American colonies. In their excitement, many English-speaking children uttered the name so quickly that the word sounded more like "Santy Claus. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus. It was Washington Irving writing as Deidrich Knickerbocker who in 1809 gave Americans their first detailed description about the Dutch version of St. Nicholas. Irving’s version rode over treetops in a horse-drawn wagon "dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites." Santa was described as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad brimmed hat. Also, the familiar phrase, "... laying a finger beside his nose…," first appeared in Irving’s story.

Full fame and Americanization came with Clement Clark Moore who in 1823 used that very same phrase in his "Visit from St. Nicholas." Moore’s verse gave Santa’s image an Arctic flavor as he substituted eight reindeer and a sleigh for Irving’s horse and wagon. Moore named the reindeer and gave Santa Claus his various laughs, winks and nods. Later in the century, famed cartoonist, Thomas Nast, further elaborated on the jolly old soul by depicting a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880’s (when bringing down Boss Tweed turned his talents elsewhere). Nast added details to Santa’s life; placing him in a workshop at the North Pole and keeping him busy with a list of all the good and bad children in the world. Artist, Haddon Sundblom, also depicted a human sized Santa in a series of illustrations for Coca-Cola advertisements introduced in 1931. A copywriter for Montgomery Ward and Company invented Rudolph, the ninth reindeer with a red and shiny nose, in 1939.

Santa Claus is everywhere in the adult world. Seek and ye shall find. Eartha Kitt sings like a sensual kitten to an old guy called "Santa Baby":

"…Just slip a sable under the tree
For Me…
Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.
Come and trim my Christmas tree
With some decorations bought at Tiffany.
I really do believe in you,
Let’s see if you believe in me…
So hurry down the chimney tonight."

The only real problem with Santa as sugar daddy is perhaps what he expects in return. Although Santa is as pure as the driven snow, I still think sexy Eartha will have to provide more than a few Oatmeal cookies and a glass of milk! (See what age does to the mind?)

What is it about this old guy that is so endearing? Well, for one thing, meeting him only once a year keeps all of us at our best and serves to foster the jolly illusion. (It’s hard to dislike anyone giving us presents. We shouldn’t forget, however, that old story about the Trojan Horse.) The reindeer are cute and don’t require any care or attention on our part. Therefore, as someone else’s responsibility, they become even cuter!

For the child (aging or otherwise) who peers out the living room window on Christmas Eve in heavy anticipation perhaps there is a lesson to be learned. Presents for being "good" or "nice" we can handle, even if we have to stretch the truth a bit about our true positions. "Good" is, after all, a relative term. To Mae West, for example, good meant to be bad. For Al Capone and his ilk, "bad" was good and sometimes even better. Who’s to say? Truth be told, deep inside our yuletide souls we all know how good or bad we have been, but on Christmas Eve does anyone really care? (Besides the Shadow, that is.)

Hopes, dreams, fantasies and desires all come alive in a special way with the annual arrival of Santa Claus. He’s not here for very long, so make the most of his magic and good will. Whether you worship in a church or mosque, light Hanukkah candles, celebrate Qwanza or adhere to the teachings of Buddha, Confucius or any other formidable one, dreams are the same and they never die for the child in all of us. This is so whether we sit alone in aging skin or with others in their aging skins. All of us search the skies on that magical night seeking an old man on a sleigh led by nine reindeer, the one in front with a red and shiny nose. May we never find him, but may he always be there!

Happy Holidays to All!

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