Santa by Faith Alone

Text painting by David Kramer. Click to enlarge and read.

Text painting by David Kramer. Click to enlarge and read.

She knows.

My much-loved, hyper-aware six-year old daughter—a little cable-starved urchin (her parents will only spring for basic) whose television hero and role model is the obsessive-compulsive detective, Monk—has discovered there is no Santa Claus.

Given her gumshoe mind I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.

One of the joys of parenthood is finding that the periods of anguish you have been promised never come to pass. Terrible twos? Never happened. Now, it seems, the reports of my child’s anguish over the death of Santa have been greatly exaggerated.

Which is a relief. And not really the point.

Walking her to school on this cold and dazzling morning, Dec. 23, my 46th birthday, the streets still piled with ice and snow, we were engaged in the type of Santa discussion we’ve had for the past three years: What sort of snack should we leave for him? How about the elves? Depending on where we placed it, would they be able to reach? Are all the elves short? How many are there? What if she wakes up mid-delivery?

Then she looked me in the eye and said, “You know, Dad, I believe in Santa.”

“Of course you do!” I said, and for a second all seemed as it was.

Then I realized it the first time I had heard her use the words “I believe.”

Apparently the skeptics had contaminated the ranks of Ms. Fallon’s first grade class, and as far as I knew, this was her first-ever assertion of a conviction in defiance of evidence to the contrary. It signaled to me that she was now aware of the alternative—to not believe—and if that was allowed, the entire notion of Santa was in question, which was not the state of things a mere two days before. As a post-toddler detective, she is very keen to interpret the first crack in the wall of evidence as a new theory in the making. Neither of us mentioned what was obvious to us both.

I searched her face for signs of distress. None. This move toward the existence of doubt apparently did not tear her world asunder. I was glad.

Without taking her eyes off mine, she asked. “Do you?”

It was a heartbeat before I blurted out, “Of course I do…”

“So Santa is real?” asked mini-Monk.

“Santa is real for the people who believe in him. Some people don’t believe in him and to them he is not real at all.”

Or as she put it, “People who believe in Santa hear the bells and people who don’t believe in Santa don’t hear the bells.”

She seemed fine with this. But the real surprise was, so was I. There was no inner conflict, no quickening of the pulse—because I did not feel I had lied. I understood myself—there in the gorgeous, blinding sun with her hand in mine—to have told her the truth. I still believed in belief.

It reminded me that the idea of faith was everything its detractors say it is—unverifiable, childlike, even childish, primitive, etched  so efficiently as it was into this little human, against a growing body of evidence.

As we walked further I thought about a fall week I spent in Vermont 20 years ago, a week during which I seemed to have been granted a VIP pass to the divine, when every step I took into the sunlit woods seemed to kindle within me a mystical fire, a bright and exciting stretch of awareness that I understood to be a reward for the few previous years of fervently hoping that God would be true. I thought of the years since and all the methods I had used to try to return to that state (pure reverie, not Vermont). I have never been sure if that week was a blessing or a curse, and I no longer care to find out.

We got back to talking about the snacks.

Did we have oatmeal? That would be good to spread in a circle around the carrots we would leave for the reindeer? How many of them were there? Nine, we thought. How were they going to fit? There probably aren’t nine carrots in a bunch. Maybe baby carrots would do.

Apparently she had put the naysayers out of her mind and decided she was going to believe a little longer, what with so much to gain. Her faith was a little like mine that week two decades back. It didn’t matter to her whether it was true as long as she got the gifts.

I was so proud of her. She had achieved that perfect mental hang, holding two opposing ideas at once, of negative capability. A perfect balance of information pouring in and perception pouring out. She was, as I saw her then, a philosophical athlete, a master of the coincida oppistorum, but without the decades of gut-wrenching self-interrogation most of us would take to get there—a perfect creature, on her way to school, pumped for candy, for presents, for fun.

Peter Catapano is the editor of Happy Days, Home Fires, and other opinion series at the New York Times Web site. He lives in Brooklyn.