Wednesday, December 23, 2009

St. Nicholas in Our Midst

I have always believed in Santa Claus, or at least in his undying spirit. And why not? He meets desires, bestows surprises, and rewards goodness. But not everyone shares my perspective.

Most children learn all-too-early that department store Santas are fakes. Shirley Temple said she learned the truth when she sat upon St. Nick’s knee and he asked for her autograph.

I was older than most children when I finally asked my mother about it. She was at the stove, cooking dinner and unable to escape the dreaded question.

First she asked me why I wanted to know.

As I recall, there were older kids in the neighborhood who’d been sharing the no-such-thing-as-Santa news, using it to intimidate and harm. And their victims, in turn, used it on the meeker children. I kept this information to myself. I simply told Mother I’d heard something about it.

She asked me what I believed.

I thought seriously about this and realized then that my father was a stand-in for St. Nick. But I considered the charade to be such a noble and loving gesture that I decided to continue honoring the tradition. I told her I still believed.

Years on, when I discovered Santa wasn’t a completely fabricated creature—that a St. Nicholas had actually walked this Earth once—the news seemed to validate the esteem I’d long held for the gift-giving pageantry.

When my husband-to-be and I set up house in Andersonville, formerly a thriving Swedish community of Chicago, we started seeing a large, old fellow on street corners and in parking lots—whose full, white beard hung down to his ample chest, who rarely uttered a word but missed nothing with his sage-like eyes, whose cart was too densely packed to differentiate any specific items.

He asked for nothing. He was just there.

At some point, a Husky-ish pup took up with him. The creature was as still and silent as the man, unusual for a young canine.

I couldn’t see these two without wondering—without believing—that here was St. Nicholas incarnate, watching us at eye level to see how well we carried on his spirit of giving and kindness and compassion. I couldn’t see these two without pangs of sorrow, thinking how far short our society falls in comparison to the Master of Giving.

But I also couldn’t see these two without hope for mankind and without thinking: Yes, I Believe.

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