G.K. Chesterton Believed in Santa Claus
What as a child we saw dimly, in natural fantasies, we should see as an adult
It would turn out to be Chesterton’s last article on Christmas, written for his last Christmas. ‘Santa Claus and Science’ appeared in Commonweal, in their Dec. 20, 1935, issue. He would die a little less than six months later.
It’s not one of Chesterton’s best, I’ll admit, though the man is one of my heroes and models. He was already declining, his long ill-treated body worn out. He’d written thousands and thousands of articles over almost four decades, and years before had started repeating himself. He threw off ideas as he always had, but he didn’t always bring them all to a point.
But it’s worth knowing. It’s Chesterton. This article expresses one of his characteristic insights: the surprisingly subtle way children see the world (when they’re allowed to) and the way an innocent childhood points to truths adults tend to lose, because they don’t remain childlike but become the kind of “realists” the world wants. They come to think that adulthood means denuding the world of wonder. In the modern world, as he says at the end of the article, children endure “that bitter break and abrupt disappointment which now marks the passage of a child from a land of make-believe to a world of no belief.” We want to avoid that.
Tweaking the English
Chesterton begins, though, tweaking his Protestant countrymen. Why did they give the man he calls “St. Nicholas of the Children” a German name? he asks. It’s what they do. “Men cannot do without the image of the Mother of God,” though the English Protestants would have liked to. “The Victorians got over her omnipresence in all art by calling her ‘a Madonna,’ whatever that may mean. As it was British to talk of Mary only in Italian, so it was British to talk of Saint Nicholas only in German.”
He explains the reason: basically, the Protestant English wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Giving Our Lady and the saints foreign names, the English “could tap all the traditional poetry of Christendom, without calling it Catholic or even Christian. It was a sort of smuggling; we could import Nicholas without paying the tax to Peter.” I don’t know how fair that is, but it is funny.
Then he turns to his theme. Chesterton notes how many people like to talk about Santa Claus as “a mere fairy-tale for children, which children themselves must soon abandon.” Some liked to say they’d lost belief in the fantasy of God the way that as children they’d stopped believing in Santa Claus. You grow out of one, you grow out of the other. Thus Santa Claus has become “a proverb of illusion and disillusion.”
He still believes in Santa Claus, he says, which startles some people. But not quite the Santa Claus they’re thinking of. “I prefer to talk about him in my own language,” he writes. “I believe that Saint Nicholas is in heaven, accessible to our prayers for anybody; if he was supposed to be specially accessible to prayers of children, as being their patron, I see no reason why he should not be concerned with human gifts to children. I do not suppose that he comes down the chimney; but I suppose he could if he liked.”
The Child’s St. Nicholas
The “religion of childhood,” as he calls it, anticipates the religion of adulthood. The first points to the second. It is foolish to toss out the second because the religion of childhood was childish, in the sense of proper to children. Among other losses, you miss meeting St. Nicholas.
But you need to look for the real story behind the popular one. Chesterton asks his contemporaries to do that, to look for the truth behind the “romances of popular religion.” A famous medieval painting shows St. Nicholas climbing up the lattice on the front of a house like a burglar, when he went to give the young women the bags of gold they needed for their dowries. (And, he says, in a kind of “by the way”: “That is another question for our contemporaries: why were celibate saints so frightfully keen on getting other people married?”)
The story “looks as if it might be the root of the legend. To see a saint climbing up the front of our house would seem to most of us as odd as seeing a saint climbing down our chimney. Very probably neither of the things happened; but it might be worth while even for scientific critics to find out what actually did happen.” If they did, they would see an example of charity, and a disregard for convention in giving it. Both useful lessons, the second in some ways more useful than the first.
Childish Fantasy and Man’s Normal Faith
Finally, Chesterton comes to the practical question. What do we do, he asks, “about the breach between the imagination and the reason, if only in the passage from the infant to the man?” He offers three possible answers. “Is the child to live in a world that is entirely fanciful and then find suddenly that it is entirely false? Or is the child to be forbidden all forms of fancy; or in other words, forbidden to be a child?” The first too often happens, the second solves the problem by making a bigger one.
He wants the child “to have some harmless borderland of fancy in childhood, which is still a part of the land in which he will live.” He wants the child to “pass from a child’s natural fancy to a man’s normal faith in Holy Nicholas of the Children.”
For Chesterton, that “harmless borderland” includes Santa Claus. I think that’s more problematic than he saw. But whatever it includes, we need to find it. It is the place children see what we need to see, where they find joys in the world that point to the eternal joys.
He suggests the reason in his book on the painter and poet William Blake, one of his earliest books. The “spiritualist,” the man who pursues spirits because they’re spirits, “has to know his gods before he loves them. But a man ought to love his gods before he is sure that there are any. … If we do not delight in Santa Claus even as a fancy, how can we expect to be happy even if we find that he is a fact?”
What as a child we saw dimly, in natural fantasies, we should see as an adult. We must not go blind by giving it up, as atheists do, but grow up by seeing it clearly. To put in biblical terms: we must become as little children as part of growing into the full stature of Christ.