[Episcopal News Service] I heard Santa on the roof when I was five years old.
Or, to be more accurate, I heard his reindeers on the roof, and I remember this as clearly as I remember my wedding day: There were jingling bells and clicker clacker sounds and a scraping that could only have been a sleigh on roof shingles.
No doubt about it. It was Santa.
My parents squinted their eyes when I yelled for them to come upstairs with the plea that Santa had arrived and could I please come down and catch a glimpse of the white beard.
But they didn’t let me go downstairs, and that was the last I ever heard Santa, and sometime after that, a dark and dangerous rumor slithered through my school like a snake, and when it bit my curiosity, I demanded that my father tell me the truth about Santa over chicken nuggets at Burger King.
“I need to know,” I said, “I need to know if there’s a Santa Claus.”
My father took a deep breath. “You want to know the truth?”
“Daaaad,” I said, “I need to know.”
“Well, then,” he paused. “There is no Santa. The real Santa Claus died hundreds of years ago, but that doesn’t mean his spirit doesn’t endure. Santa Claus loved little children like you, and he wanted the best for them, and whenever anyone loves a child or provides for them, they are carrying on Santa’s legacy. They’re keeping Santa’s spirit alive.”
I slurped my Coke. “So…no Santa Claus then?”
“No,” he said.
When my father told me that there was no Santa Claus, I didn’t burst into tears or throw a tantrum at Burger King. But I remember feeling the same way that I did when I first read a billboard: I will never be able to un-read this. I can never take it back. This was the kind of knowledge that seeps to the core of your being and changes something about the way you perceive the world, for better or for worse.
And thus began the slow decline of that Christmas mystique—the lights, the music, the fantastical-ness of it all began to seem less fantastic as Santa became a figment, as the homes decorated with lights seemed smaller and I began to be more fascinated by the cost of their electric bills than their beauty. I imagine this happens to most children as they transition to adulthood: What once seemed magical now seems mechanical. And yet, we yearn for the miraculous during Advent and Christmas not just because it’s what we witnessed as children but also because, at heart, a miracle is what the season is really all about.
I like to believe that this is where faith comes in. If faith is the assurance of what is hoped for and the conviction of things unseen, as the letter to the Hebrews says, then having to believe in the miracle of Jesus without evidence is a holy part of our ministry. A challenge, yes, but one that is intended to ultimately enrich our relationship to God.
Which means that finding the mystery in Christmas may take a different form than what we knew before, and it may be more challenging, but we’re called to the journey. And I like to believe it’s a journey worth taking.
Here’s an example of what I mean: We celebrated Lessons and Carols in my church last week, and as the young acolytes lit candles during the service, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the beauty of the light sparkling against the windows, glowing against people’s faces. It wasn’t the same kind of elated, frantic excitement that Santa or giant candy canes on neighbors’ lawns used to bring. It was deep contentment, a peace in the knowledge that God offers us the miracle of birth so that we will discover how God can birth forth faith and life and hope and transformation in us as well.
As Advent reaches its pinnacle and Christmas emerges from it, I wish you all the peace I felt in that moment. I wish you beauty and comfort in God’s presence. And if by chance you hear Santa on the roof, make sure to say hello for me.
– The Rev. Danielle Tumminio lectures at Yale University and is the author of “God and Harry Potter at Yale.” She currently serves as an interim associate at St. Anne in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
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