A few years ago the time came, as it does in many families, when I had to tell my daughter Robin the “truth” about Santa Claus.
So I wrote her a letter, which (being a writer) I then sold to the local fishwrap as a column, an updated version of the famous 1897 New York Sun editorial. But without violating copyright let me tell you what the letter said.
I started by telling her about Robert Woodruff. As head of the Coca-Cola Co., he made our hometown of Atlanta the financial center of the South. In addition to building his company, he became the city’s heartbeat, a man who insisted on compromise so we could be marketed as “the city too busy to hate.”
Mr. Woodruff had no children, but whenever the city needed something – a park, say, or an arts center – he’d write a check while insisting the donation be anonymous. He became known as “Mr. Anonymous,” and everyone in the city got the message. Most of the buildings took his name only after he died.
Mr. Woodruff lived by a simple creed, one he put on his desk so everyone could see it. “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Then I wrote about the historical story behind Santa Claus. I wrote about Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. Nicholas became known for his generosity, especially to children, and he was so well loved he became a saint, someone generations would be encouraged to emulate. His memory became celebrated each December through the giving of gifts to children.
I told her of how the idea behind St. Nicholas and giving gifts spread to Western Europe. I told of how the Dutch made St. Nikolas into Sinterklaas, and how that tradition came across to the Dutch-founded city now known as New York, where it was immortalized in the poem “The Night Before Christmas.”
Then I brought the story full-circle, and described how our image of Santa Claus comes from paintings done as ads by the Coca-Cola Co. under Robert Woodruff.
Yes, I concluded, the presents marked as from Santa under her tree came from her mother and me. For her and her brother, we do the job of Santa Claus, and we’re honored to do it. The same is true for most other children.
But there is a Santa Claus. There are parents who can’t afford presents, and millions of children without parents, yet somehow the presents come. And they don’t just have to come at Christmas. Like Mr. Woodruff, those of us who’ve been given the most in life gain the greatest gifts by giving. All of us play Santa once a year, I said, to remind ourselves of how we should be each day, not just to our own children but to everyone.
And now that you know the truth, I concluded to Robin, you are now Santa Claus, too. Be a good one.
Let’s all try to be good Santas, tomorrow and in the millennium to come.
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