One of the best

December 21, 1993|By Russell Baker

SANTA Claus was a problem from the beginning, but I always liked him, and still do, and have no patience with people who don't. He brings fantasy and good feeling into our lives.

These are valuable gifts these days when so few fantasies bring good feeling and so many take us down among the bleak and the monstrous.

From that early moment when reason first began to spoil for me the pure pleasures of existing, I tended toward skepticism about Santa Claus.

It was not until the fevers of youth had subsided and I had passed beyond middle age's desperate struggle to pass for a grown-up that I fully escaped this glum skepticism.

It originated because the house in which I first became aware of being alive had no fireplace. Santa Claus, who delivered his goods by coming down chimneys, left some at my house despite its lack of a chimney.

Thus is the evil seed of skepticism planted in the unformed mind. I must have raised this question with an adult who told me that we did indeed have a chimney, which was the truth.

To heat the parlor we used a wood-burning stove. It was vented through a metal pipe which extended from the stove into the wall, conducting the smoke into a vertical shaft, which is to say a chimney.

Still, the physical improbability of a fat man in a red suit entering our front room through that metal pipe, barely nine inches in diameter, which even then would have left him trapped inside the wood-burning stove from which he would have to squeeze a corpulent figure and a bag of gifts -- well, skepticism comes naturally to children with their primitive instinct for survival.

It takes a good deal of aging to outgrow it. It takes age's gift for reflection too.

One day, if you have that, you interrupt your perpetual whining at the world long enough to reflect that in just simply having arrived here in this amazing wonder called life, you have been the beneficiary of miracles far more improbable than it would take to get Santa Claus through that metal pipe and out of our wood-burning stove.

As a child afflicted with reason, and therefore cunning, I did not express my skepticism to grown-ups.

Cunningly I reasoned that since declarations of sour doubt might provoke a cutoff of Christmas goodies, a sensible person would keep his lip buttoned about his doubts and, instead, issue expressions of faith in this improbable delivery system.

Eventually, of course, puberty did its work, adolescence loomed on the horizon, and I was smitten by the terrible need to behave like a man of the world.

In this long era when one year was 10 years long and my knowledge expanded until it seemed there was nothing I didn't know -- except how to stop blushing in the presence of girls -- skepticism was the mire in which I wallowed.

Even then, however, Santa Claus retained power over me. Something about him made me feel -- absurdly, inexplicably, nonsensically, irrationally -- good.

I became aware of this strange power as a young man living in Baltimore, where one of the downtown department stores each year placed a laughing Santa Claus in a big window looking into the street. Life-size and remarkably lifelike, he sat on a throne of some sort, rocked ceaselessly from side to side and simply laughed, loudly and joyously.

Hour after hour the amplified roar of this laughter sounded through downtown Baltimore, drawing crowds to the window to investigate, then to be infected by the sound of it until it became impossible not to laugh with it.

The street was always packed with people standing there feeling as silly, I suppose, as I did about laughing and about feeling good for no sensible reason.

Soon after that I had to deal with the Santa Claus problem as a parent and did so by enthusiastically disengaging my children ,, from any sensible adults who had mastered life's psychological pitfalls sufficiently to treat fantasy as dangerous to the young.

When our first-born was not quite 2, I took her downtown to enjoy the excitement of that December's busyness and see the laughing Santa Claus. Alas, it was gone now, but I found a human Santa Claus in another shop window.

"Santa Claus," I said to her. "Wave to him. Say hello." She smiled with utter credulity -- without a trace of skepticism! -- and said, "Hello, Santa Claus." What a beautiful memory it is.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.


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