Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Needing Santa

Q: What accounts for the fat guy's success as an enduring, worldwide symbol of the holiday? The quirky suit? The fawning elves? The antlered entourage? How often do unlikely figures catch fire and seize the popular imagination?

Mythology is a powerful force that enlivens the spirit, bedevils the psyche and shapes the culture. Ancient tribes had countless, colorful mythical creatures in their storytelling repertoires --- various winged creatures, unicorns and firebirds, god, goddesses and human figures with extraordinary powers. Religion and mythology long hovered around the gray and shifting lines of belief, superstition, mysticism and faith.

By contrast, modernity lays claim to a more scientific, less mythology-filled existence, with the consequence that many people frown on believing anything that they cannot see, even claiming to have little or no faith at all.

Fortunately, Santa Claus comes along once each year to leaven the otherwise-dreadfully unimaginative circumstances of modern life, so full of political posturing and economic woes and vague terrorist threats.

Adults say that they keep the Santa myth alive for the children, but, truth be told, adults really keep Santa alive for themselves. Santa Claus reminds adults of their simpler, more child-like selves, the kids who could believe in the myth, who could stare at the night sky in wonder, hoping that the big guy with the red-nosed reindeer might favor their chimneys with special largesse.

Santa Claus embodies a time past that never really happened quite that way in the lives of most adults. Yet, the memory of the myth is so powerful that people go to extraordinary lengths to try to re-create the dream in each annual holiday season -- the elaborate light displays against the winter darkness, the trees with cherished ornaments, the colorful wrapping that makes even the perennial gift of Old Spice something special -- like gold or frankincense or myrrh and not just shaving cream.

Santa Claus is, of course, a European and Christian mythology, but people of many different cultures and religions still indulge their children in the secular rituals of believing in, and even visiting with, the big guy in the red suit. Children may beg for face time with the white beard, but parents go along with the story line and play their parts very well. This is no cartoon character -- Santa is not SpongeBob SquarePants. Santa is not just another face in the crowd of crass commercial creations. Santa transcends the modern video culture to claim a space in the human imagination that excites children to be good, at least for a brief time, and inspires grown-ups to be loving and generous, at least in the moment.

I grew up in a big house with a lot of kids, a middle child, a girl among mostly boys. I remember the year I learned the truth about Santa -- something happened that led me to discover mom and dad wrapping the presents -- but they didn't see me, and I kept the secret to myself for a long time. Perhaps I was afraid that my little brothers would be disappointed if I told them; perhaps I was afraid that my big brother would tell on me.

But I think I was more focused on holding onto the dream for just a while longer -- wanting to keep believing in Santa is something that nearly every kid goes through. In fact, some of us never quite let go of Santa entirely, and that's not a bad thing. The capacity to believe in the potential for goodness is essential for hope, optimism, a sense of fulfillment and even peace.

Santa lives! You just have to believe.

By Patricia McGuire  |  December 21, 2009; 12:26 PM ET  | Category:  branding Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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