It may be overstating the matter to say you can find a Santa on every street corner, but these days there's certainly one to be found at every shopping mall. Even with this proliferation of Santas, finding one who takes the responsibility of portraying a 1600 year-old legend to heart can be challenging.
A friend told me that her doubts of ever finding such a Santa are multiplying at the same rate as the Santas. Waiting in line with her five-year-old for a holiday picture, they overheard Santa on his coffee break with the photographer - discussing the moneymaking end of their "Photo with Santa" business. Walking through the Santa Claus maze, they watched another "Red Suit" loose half his beard, which appeared to be twice as old as the Santa legend itself. She was astounded to hear one St. Nick tell a little girl the one-of-a-kind antique doll she wanted would be waiting for her on Christmas day. Another Kris Kringle actually seemed frightened of the children. (One bad experience, no doubt.) Instead of seating them on his lap, he held them at arm's length as they recited their Christmas dreams.
Long ago, when I was making the Santa rounds with my children, I came up with a way to explain these multiple, and sometimes inept, Santas. I told the kids Santa was so busy making toys at the North Pole that giant elves dressed themselves in Santa suits and distributed themselves throughout the world...and the malls...to help Santa out. Santa himself never came down with his reindeer until late on Christmas Eve.
But my children never quite believed me. They knew the real Santa was out there somewhere, in one of those three-sizes-too big Santa suits, behind a pair of crooked glasses. They'd sit on each Santa's lap and after each one they'd whisper in my ear, "Do you think he's the real Santa?"
Too often I looked up at a moth-eaten red suit, a beard of cotton rolls taped together, and a frown where a twinkle should have been. I always tried to reassure my children. "No, he's just one of Santa's helpers."
But like my friend's children, like all children, they didn't want or need to be assured. For each time I tried, my children looked back at that cotton ball beard and told me with joyful conviction, "I think he is the real Santa."
There's only one way to describe such devotion: blind faith. Blind faith certainly seems to be what children need at Christmas. What they see of Santa in real life is hardly what's portrayed in classic storybooks.
Yet their magical innocence allows them to believe still. They have faith that the cotton ball beard is real, faith that the reindeer are resting in a nearby stable, somewhere beyond the flashy red convertible in which Santa rode to town.
Perhaps all of us could use a bit of this blind faith children hold onto so tightly. A faith that assures them we will all receive our gifts if we only believe hard enough.
A faith that tells them the most bedraggled Santa holds a real one within.