By this point, you may already have heard the news story about the second grade teacher in Nanuet, NY, who, presenting a geography lesson about the Arctic, decided to tell her entire class of second graders that there is no Santa. Needless to say, the follow-up story was about her personally calling the enraged parents of her students to apologize. These things do happen – although usually it’s that know-it-all third grader on the bus who gives you the “Do you know who really brings your presents?” speech. What I found alarming, reading the comments to the news item and in the blogs covering it, was the Santa-hatin’ going on. There were pearl-clutching “How can you LIE to the CHILDREN” types, and frothing evangelicals and atheists conflating belief in Santa with faith in God, and stick-dry rationalists who didn’t
want kids taught anything that wasn’t verifiably true, and Very Socially Concerned people who pointed out that Santa unjustly left poor kids just a few presents and rich kids a truckload and what kind of lesson was THAT to send to the next generation?
“Dudes,” I wanted to say. (When I’m alone at home I frequently talk like a 90s era surfer.) “Haven’t you ever heard of magic? Metaphor? Fiction? Folklore? Chill out.”
The original New Englanders would have recognized those commenters. The first Puritan settlers of Massachusetts (and remember, as much as we like to now deny it, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820) banned Christmas outright. They deemed it a vain, popish affectation, a day with no scriptural basis, and they despised the drinking, sports, dancing and gambling that comprised the festivities in the in the 17th century. (That whole caroling, present-giving, home-and-hearth based holiday didn’t become common for another two hundred years.)
Under pressure from the royal government, the Massachusetts colony repealed the Christmas ban in 1681, but the New Englanders, a stiff-necked lot if ever there was one, kept up a ferocious disapproval of the holiday. Decorated houses were looked upon with all the shock and outrage a contemporary
Homeowners association would give to an outdoor laundry line strung with blinking multicolor lights. Schools were open on Christmas day, and shops attempting to close (perhaps for a little Fezziwig-style party in the back room) were fined.
Throughout the eighteenth century, unregenerate Anglicans in Virginia put up pineapples and feasted their neighbors after hunting to the hounds and the bound-for-hell Catholics in Maryland toasted the season with spiced wine and held public dances to celebrate. New Englanders held firm against such pagan rituals. But, as Ebenezer Scrooge observed, however much you might like to bury Christmas with a stake of holly in its heart, the holiday is remarkably
hard to kill. In the early nineteenth century, Christmas crept north, capturing the formerly non-observant Quakers of Pennsylvania and converting the Calvinist Dutch and Scots of New York into carol-singing, party-loving holiday goers. When Sinterklaas or Kris Kingle began to make his appearance on American shores, New Englanders saw right through the jolly old elf – and determined he was the anti-Christ.
But even Mainers can’t resist the fruitcakes and fir trees forever. In 1870, Christmas was made a national holiday, and the rise of the Victorian ideal – family centered, home-honoring, sentimental – made even stony New England hearts grow three sizes. Or perhaps the practical New England merchants
realized there was good money to be made in December? At any rate, after two hundred and fifty years, Christmas finally caught on in Maine and Massachusetts.
Santa Claus? Despite the ongoing frowns of pearl-clutchers and rationalists, he’s in New England to stay. There’s no better answer to Puritans old and new than the answer Francis P. Church gave to Virginia O’Hanlon:
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.