By Matt Gordon
Santa taught me the idea of incarnation. All I had asked for was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nintendo. I ended up getting that too, but I hid it in storage when my wife made me grow up; but incarnation stayed with me.
It happened by chance, as most good lessons do. My mother had decided it was time to have “the talk” with her three eldest children—the ones out of diapers. And no, it wasn’t that talk, for that is an altogether different tale for another day and likely not the best group conversation among siblings of different ages and genders. No, this fateful December night did not have new life in mind; it was solely focused on death.
She gathered us that evening—we’ll call it a Tuesday, because that is when most unexpected things tend to happen, right?—there in the living room, with her occupying the large shadow of our shabby Christmas tree. This was her first mistake, for our collective gaze kept drifting from her talking face to the wrapped packages beneath the tree that spoke so much louder. By looking hard enough, you could nearly make out the name on the tag—my mind seemed to be able to discern an M-A-T-T scrawled out on every package, and hence filled itself with fantasies involving all my new trinkets. I knew my sisters, though older, were not above the same mental meandering, but my mother yammered on, oblivious to her long-forgotten childhood penchants.
“A lie, even with great intentions, is still a lie . . .” she said, or something similarly noble about truth and honesty and yadda-yadda-yadda. We all nodded and smiled throughout the discourse out of love, though we were pretty sure she had lost her mind like adults on television sometimes did. Between her possible senility and those tidily wrapped gifts, not much got through. And then something did.
Our nods ceased; our smiles faded.
“Do you all understand what I’m telling you?” she asked.
“Santa Claus isn’t real,” she repeated; it was a fresh dagger: Et tu, mama?
Of course, we had suspected as much. Flying reindeer and a rotund geriatric sliding down every single chimney on earth? The whole thing seemed a bit far-fetched (or at least fat-fetched) but beautifully so. We clung to the fiction like we clung to our childhood, but in one foul moment, it was gone. I, at around seven years of age, felt my once-tender chin immediately sprout hairs; I hate to think what this new-found adulthood was doing to my sisters. And all this came from the one who, every year, had prepared the milk and cookies!
Silence sacked the room, the Whos gagged in their tiny Who-beds.
And then came a jingle, then a jangle, and a jingle. We looked at each other afraid to trust our basic senses—could they also be lying to us? Had our very ears joined the mutiny? Though jaded, we clearly heard a bell ringing. Many of them, actually. And they were getting louder and closer, and louder and closer.
We checked our mother’s face, and she too was perplexed by the chorus of crescendo-ing bells. The certain knowledge she wielded moments before had melted into miffed scrutiny.
“It is coming from outside,” Kerrie piped.
We all lunged toward the big front windows, a kid to a window and a mother to the glass door. We had to rub our grimy mitts on the glass to clear a little frosty face-holes from which to peer out into the dark, jingling night.
There, cresting the hill of our lonely gravel lane, was a nonsensical sight. Our house was in the country between two towns. We technically didn’t belong to a town. People didn’t visit unexpectedly or by accident. Yet here, up our lane, journeyed an unexpected visitor. And what’s more, said visitor was not driving a car but a horse-drawn carriage! Sure enough, a couple of horses were leading a bell-laden cart up our lane. With each majestic hoof-stride the bells grew louder, louDER, LOUDER, until the carriage had arrived at our door. Perched in the driver’s seat was none other than Jolly Saint Nick himself!
He ho-ho-hoed his way off the seat, and here I looked away from the spectacle to peek at my mother. I wanted to thank for her for this wonderful surprise. She toppled our dreams only to make this surprise all the more merry and to set our imaginations alight anew!
Only there was no joy on her face, only bewilderment. She knew as little about this present phenomenon as we did. Which meant, obviously, that it was real!—Santa, all of it! Sure, maybe it was horses instead of reindeer, but a hoof is a hoof, right? Easy error in translation probably. Or maybe he only used them on the actual Christmas Eve? The time for sorting out the details would come, but for now here he was—at our house. Our house.
The big bearded fellow liberally distributed candy and hugs and kisses to each of us. He even gave my mom a fatherly embrace. He called us each by name and told us that if we were good, he’d be back to visit our house again in a few weeks on Christmas Eve. Oh the glory of it all! Santa then doffed his cap, plopped back on his cart, and headed back into the wintry night, presumably to the North Pole or to other houses where doubt had slinked in.
Later we found out that this visitor was actually a retiree from our church with too much time on his hands. His stunt had postponed my mother’s plans but it had made our Christmas. It took years for my mother to get us to a point of adequate (and appropriate) disbelief, and the reason was simple: we believed in Santa because he had come to us! We didn’t trek off to some mall to see him; he had visited our home. We had touched his flesh. He knew our names! Santa had incarnated to our world, and that, if nothing else, made him more real than truth, no matter what any well-meaning old person tried to tell us.
There is just something to that—incarnation, that is. In our moment of greatest disbelief, he came knocking at our door and the greatest gift of that night wasn’t a more whimsical Christmas or some candy canes or even receiving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nintendo; no, the greatest gift was this idea that was formed in my supple mind. This idea about the power of “being with.” What language of love is stronger than the one who drops everything and just shows up for another?
Sure, Santa turned out to be a myth. It didn’t take me long to get that. But what happens when a myth, full of all its mythic wonder, becomes real—more real than truth? What happens when myth enters life and lives life and dies death and lives life again? What happens when myth comes to live where I live? When myth is real?
Well, I think the only rational response is the one I had all those years ago, as Santa drove away from my house that night. The best choice was to cling to the wonder of it all and believe—to live and to believe, day in and day out, in the beauty of incarnation, of a God that deigns to come down my forgotten lane, the blessed myth come true; to cling to that truth and show up and keep bells a-ringing for others.