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  • Melissa Panara

The Unasked Question

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

I began preparing for it when my children were very young. In my mind, I started working on the answer to what I thought would be an inevitable question. I was sure that someday Michael and Natalie would want to know if Santa Claus was “real”, and I was determined to give them a more satisfying answer than just yes or no. Much to my surprise, neither of them asked. However, there were hints along the way that gave us a window into their ever-evolving thinking on the subject of magical visitors.

Mom, Santa is a person. But the Easter Bunny is a bunny. Is the real Easter Bunny just a person in a bunny costume? Where does he even live?

Dylan and Bridget don’t have a chimney. If Santa can get into their house without one, why can’t he just go in everyone’s house that way? And what even IS that way?

There is just no way reindeer can fly. They weigh, like, a thousand pounds. Bats are the only mammals that can fly.

Mom, why did the Easter Bunny give me jelly beans? (chin goes down and to the side, eyebrows go up) Doesn’t he know that I don’t like jelly beans...?

Mom, the tooth fairy took my tooth even though I left a note under my pillow saying I wanted to keep it. Can she give it back to me tonight? (same chin/eyebrow routine, different kid)

In these moments, Mike and I would exchange panicked glances, trip over half-baked answers, or simply join them in their complete and justified confusion. I can only assume that parents everywhere can relate.

There comes a point, however, when we want our children to think through situations that seem beyond the bounds of possibility or contradict things they know for sure. Would we want our eventual teenagers still believing that one man could visit every country in the world in one night? Of course not. We educate our kids to be problem solvers, to connect learned information, and to question things that don’t add up. This is age-appropriate growth. But what, then, becomes of the magic of Christmas?

Knowing that the question “Is Santa Claus real?” did not have a simple answer, I made it my mission to craft an explanation that was both historical and inspirational. I’d had a general awareness that there was an actual person, at some point in history, named St. Nicholas. However, I didn’t have any idea how he got so many aliases or how elves and flying reindeer became a part of his narrative.

No surprise, the internet provided me with a lengthy history filled with contradictory accounts of this real man’s life. Among the less debated details are the fact that he lived during the 3rd century, was born in present-day Turkey, loved children, and lived a life in service to God. Beyond this, my deep-dive led me to a number of legends which may or may not have a foothold in truth. As I read through the lore, I found myself hoping to find something magical. But true to form, the rabbit hole that is the internet left me feeling drained and forgetful of the point of my quest.

After some time away, I reminded myself of my original purpose: I wasn’t writing a term paper on the man; I just wanted to have something meaningful to say to my kids when they asked how they “really” got all of those gifts. To that end, I took the liberty of combining the most inspiring parts of the stories I found and molding them into a magical truth that, I believed, would work for my family.

Because they never asked, this explanation sat on the shelf in my mind for more than a few Christmases. Though seemingly content with their own conclusions about Christmas magic, I still wanted to share with them, at ages fourteen and twelve, the answer to an unasked question that took my mind and heart over a decade to synthesize. So here it is. This is what I have now shared with Michael and Natalie. Perhaps you’ll find something here worthy of sharing, too.

Santa Claus was a real person. He really lived. But as people do, he grew old and he passed away. His real name was Nicholas, but it seems that he did not have a wife. Nicholas did not live in a cold part of the world, but because of his connection to Christmas, we think of him as living in a cold, snowy place. The name Santa Claus came from Nicholas’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas.

Although he did not have children of his own, Nicholas always loved children. It is said that each Christmas, he gave handmade presents to all of the children in his village. He did this for many years. When he passed away, the village parents took up the charge and continued to give gifts to their children on his behalf; these gifts were “from” Nicholas. Because he had started something selfless and beautiful, they carried on his tradition and ultimately helped create his legacy.

The gifts you get from Santa each Christmas are a continuation of this legacy. Along with families all over the world, we honor this great man by keeping his annual tradition alive. The real Nicholas, who was sainted for his kindness, valued two things that we value: generosity and community. He was generous with his time, his talent and his resources. He didn’t travel the world to give gifts to every child; he took care of the people around him. One person cannot give so much to so many. But all of us can be generous with what we do have and love the people who are right around us. Your gifts on Christmas morning come to you because a real man and his real community inspired the world to do just that. And that is nothing short of magical.

Melissa Panara, Christmas 2021

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