When I was thirteen, my dad told me he wanted me to come out on the rowboat in our pond with him to look for beavers. Already, this story is off to a massively amazing start. Saying that my dad wanted me to help him hunt beavers on a rowboat must sound like an extraordinary phrase that evokes wonder and the majesty of the outdoors and man’s relationship with the wild. What in fact this phrase represents is my dad continuing an almost unending crusade against a species of pest on our property that I get to now be conscripted into whilst paddling a dingy full of bird shit and pond scum.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this expedition was going to have much more meaning to me down the road than I realized. This was going to be the time when my dad finally tells me that Santa Claus isn’t real.
I’m sure you already have questions, first among them being why did I still believe in Santa Claus at the age of thirteen? In all fairness, among all the things we’re expected to believe in when we’re kids—The Tooth Fairy, True Love, that standardized tests are a critical part of a public school education—Santa Claus is one of the things that I found to have a good reason to suspend disbelief in favor of. Oh, I heard all of the reasons why he couldn’t be real. There’s always those kids, the ones that feel so very little and small that they find ways to mock and belittle the hope out of other kids. But honestly, I felt that I was meant to believe in Santa Claus. In my mind, I had actually started to fuse together an idea that Santa and Jesus were the same person.
The evidence is all there. He miraculously travels around the world in one night, bringing gifts to all the good boys and girls and coal for the naughty. Apparently he is either immortal or able to defy mortality on a yearly basis. He’s got a posse of little guys helping him out. As far as I was concerned, Santa was just Jesus going through a rebrand.
Of course, this theory flies fully in the face of not only historical evidence, but my own personal life experiences. When I was 3 my brother convinced me that if I found the Christmas presents mom and dad had hidden, that I would be allowed to open them early. The boxes clearly said from Santa! I just figured mom and dad needed a part time job. Jesus wasn’t even born in December, it was moved from July in order to coincide with the pagan winter solstice celebration! Didn’t matter to me. Santa was my personal lord and savior cause one year, he brought me a voice controlled robot, and I felt like a god damn king.
So I go out in the rowboat and get ambushed by my dad, dropping truth bombs onto the peaceful hamlets of my childhood imagination. He’s very gentle and understanding, letting me know that it’s just that most boys my age don’t still give their parents letters to send to Santa and that he just wants to make sure I didn’t get too confused or sad about it. And honestly I was fine. I told him I kind of knew Santa wasn’t real. But deep down, I’ll be honest, I kept the faith. I started resorting to keeping secret my missives to Santa and playing along with people when they would joke about his existence. I had created my own faith, and Santa was the leader of my church.
This would stick with me long down the road, when, living in east Texas and, having a different world view than most of my neighbors, I would face questions about my faith, about my personal beliefs or politics. I don’t mean to make it all sound political, but given that it was always widely known that our family were one of the few democrats in a majority republican county and town, it never felt apolitical either. I once got called an atheist to my face by a girl who I had been friends with for years because I corrected her when she said Christianity and Islam had nothing in common (they both descend from the Abrahamic family tree). Classmates would often use me as a way to provoke our government/economics teacher into a back and forth to run out the clock and prevent him from assigning our class homework—ever been 17 and pushed into a prolife/prochoice debate with a teacher over a decade your senior? I never felt any of it was personal against me; I got along just fine with people, regardless of how they or their parents voted, and they got along well with me. It was just my own thoughts, my own beliefs that they wanted to attack. Because, you know, those things don’t come from me, right?
I never would say I bought in fully to all the church youth groups or summer camps I went to, but I loved the people and community, so I always did my best to make an effort. I always looked and searched for the merits of it all. But when people will attack you not in defense of their beliefs but of their arrogance? That instead of taking time to examine and formulate their own beliefs or understand where I’m coming from, they’d blindly strike out against whatever they felt threatened by?
I believe I have a healthy spiritual life, and I have the greatest respect for people who have their own beliefs and take the time to get to know other’s. But respecting other people’s beliefs shouldn’t require bending your own to their convenience or constantly defending them from any and all criticism. For all I know, my beliefs must be working. I’ve never had coal in my stockings, and I don’t feel threatened or under attack by your dissent. So why do you?