The evidence seemed indisputable. It was Christmas morning, a snowy one, must have been 1970, when a storm dumped almost 2 feet in Burlington, Mass. The tracks on the roof of David Shedd’s house were about 4 feet apart, standard size for a North Pole sleigh, his father, George, told him.
Here was proof, plain as the footprints in the fireplace ashes: Santa Claus was real. And for one more year, young David Shedd could live with assurance that his life had been touched with the mythical magic of St. Nick.
The other day, father and son were back on the scene where the tracks had appeared some 27 years earlier. They were scratching their memories for details. David’s 10-month-old son, Michael, was in his arms.
“Dad, it’s OK, you can tell me,” David, a civil engineer, was saying as he pointed toward the roof of the house where his father still lives. “You can tell me. Who put those tracks there?
The father didn’t hesitate.
“Santa must have,” George said to his son, with a sideways glance to the grandson, as if he were planting the seed for another generation of magic.
While children might argue it’s overkill, many adults go to a lot of trouble each Christmas to remind their children Santa Claus exists.
“There is no mythic figure more powerful, and perhaps more sacred, to the American psyche than Santa Claus,” said Val Berryman, the curator of history at Michigan State University. Folklorists say Berryman is one of the nation’s most renowned (adult) Santa Claus experts.
The power of Santa in part is fueled by American commercialism, Berryman said. He said that although variations of the figure date back centuries, the rosy-cheeked, 250-pound Santa we know today hails from a character painted in 1931 by Haddon Sundblom for a Coca-Cola advertisement.
The artist used his neighbor, one Lou Prentis of Muskegon, Mich., as a model. Prentis was a salesman, as Sundblom’s Santa would become, selling within just a few years of his inception such products as soda, cigarettes, liquor and automobiles.
But today’s Santa is much more than a salesman.
“He reasserts the child in all of us,” Berryman said. “We hate to lose the joys of childhood.
As unpalatable as it is for some Christians, Santa has taken some of the religion out of Christmas. It is a secularization that Americans seem more willing to make than other cultures, Berryman added. European countries, for instance, have fewer Santas plying the marketplaces and are more likely to focus on the birth of Jesus than on a man in furs handing out freebies.
“My sense is that the English Santas are less commercialized, not that I’m suggesting we’re holier than thou,” said Susan Laurence, curator of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London.
But in this country, at least, Santa seems to provide many adults with a time warp to childhood, according to Berryman. “And we’ve become quite creative about how to preserve the fellow,” he said.
Consider, for example, the homegrown examples shared by several parents waiting to visit Santa in the Burlington Mall.
John Rossi, who lives in an apartment without a fireplace, leaves the oven door open.
Harriet Rowe wires strips of red flannel to the inner surface of the fireplace to suggest a hasty Santa.
Meryl Miller tracks talcum powder over the living room to the front door to suggest a sloppy Santa.
John Perez tracks ashes through the living room to suggest a dirty Santa.
“I still believe,” said James Molinari, 53, a vice president at Camp Dresser & McKee Inc., an engineering firm.
Molinari said he grew up poor, part of a family of six that lived in a two-room attic. The Molinari children seldom asked their parents for toys because they knew their parents couldn’t afford such extravagances.
“But Santa could,” Molinari said.
Not until he was 13 and on his way to junior high school and an arena of potential teasing did his parents suggest the young teenager review the physics of the Santa phenomenon. Santa’s fall was hard. It brought down the Easter Bunny along with him.
“I treasure the myth, because once you lose it, you lose the magic, and there really isn’t much left” to Christmas, Molinari said.
Indeed, the physics can make skeptics of the pragmatic among us, according to an analysis by Spy Magazine several years ago.
Estimating there are 378 million Christian households in the world, and assuming that at least one child in each home has been good enough to merit a visit, the analysis concluded Santa would have to make 822.6 visits per second. He roughly has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney (or oven vent), fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, munch on the snacks, turn his head with a jerk, and get on with it.
However, as any child will point out, such scrutiny fails to factor in the power of magic.
“You mean there are adults who don’t believe in Santa Claus?”asks the somewhat incredulous Robert J. Lurtsema, radio host of Morning Pro Musica on WGBH-FM in Boston.
Meanwhile, David Shedd, 33, said he is content to keep a close eye on the roof of his father’s house as he slowly introduces his son Michael to the phenomenon of sleigh tracks.
“Sometimes you have to look very carefully,” Shedd warned.