A Thank You Letter to the Santa-Industrial Complex

Madison Ave May Have 'Stolen' Christmas, but It's Also Brought Joy to Our Children

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
A holiday message for Madison Avenue:

They say you've ruined Christmas, commercialized it, desecrated it, co-opted it. I say humbug. Yes, there are two overlapping Christmases, one for faith and for magic. Some would say there's no big difference, but leave us not to argue theology. May we instead celebrate magic and the crass opportunists who help deliver it? This is my sincere thank you. What you have given me, and what I am about to lose, is beyond priceless.

As I write, it is Christmas Eve, by far my favorite day of the year. The joy so infuses my otherwise jaded, listless being, it's practically oozing out of my pores. Yet I am equally beside myself with anxiety, melancholy and loss. Yes, Santa is on his way, but as you read these words a few days hence, Santa is also on his way out. Of my life. Forever.

The jig is up. My youngest daughter is almost 10. After years of suspicions, questioning, spying and some earnest detecting, she will have at long last been informed of the actual provenance of the Fushigi gravity ball, the snow pants and ear muffs, the Mind Flex game, the BFF necklace, the candy canes, the Nerf Gun, the rock collection -- all clandestinely plucked, for the last time, from her triple-sealed (staples are very hard to defeat) letter to Santa Claus.

"Extra information" is how I characterized the great confession, something I promised her to keep the con alive just a few more days once she'd been substantially won over by schoolyard intelligence reports shooting down the flying-reindeer miracle we've been promoting till now. This was no burst bubble; more like a 90% deflated balloon. Her native common sense for several years has been at odds with the illusion.

In 2008, she deployed the motion detector from the spy kit she'd unwrapped in 2007, trying to catch Santa violating the perimeter. Last year she demanded photographic evidence. The Photoshop of Rudolph on our back deck was easy. Tromping backwards outside with a carved apple on the end of a broomstick to simulate boot and hoof prints in 26 inches of snow was a little harder. Not to mention: "Daddy, why does Santa need bar codes?"

That was two years ago. Try to explain outsourcing and supply-chain management to a 7-year-old.

But I did. With three daughters over a period of almost 30 years, I promulgated all sorts of fabrications, dodges, forgeries in service of a Big Lie. And haven't we all? Haven't we engaged in a massive conspiracy, a nearly global fraud? And who is substantially behind it?

Evidently you are. If there's one thing more certain this time of year than ugly sweaters, it is advertising and marketing taking the blame for trivializing one of the two holiest days on the Christian calendar. "Madison Avenue Stole Christmas," as one Catholic writer recently put it. Not only do you stand accused of distracting the faithful -- by means of shiny gift wrap and mall jewelry and battery-operated plastic crap -- from the true meaning of Christmas, you are blamed for proselytizing a red-suited secular alternative to Christ.

It's not that the critics of Santa Claus are wrong about the dynamic. It's just that they're wrong about Santa. He may not be a god, but no god worth his salt should mind someone with Santa's moral clarity. While the Ten Commandments are swell, there's an undeniable conciseness to "Be good for goodness sake." And I have no doubt that Santa exerts more moral authority than any official god, at least in the fourth quarter. That not to mention his love for mankind and -- above all -- his capacity to make people happy.

Among those people, me, to a degree I could have never in my own childhood have imagined. I grew up in a middle-class suburban ghetto of G.I. Bill Jews. Santa was a goyishe thing, like Perry Como, highballs and Jello with fruit suspended within it. Still, at Christmastime I used to wish for a Sears catalogue ventriloquist dummy I'd studied obsessively just in case the gentiles had it right. No such luck, alas. Flash forward to adulthood and two marriages to non-Jews, yielding less teeth-gnashing then you'd think and three adorable Christian offspring/consumers. We are mainly irreligious, but we celebrate a lot of holidays and Christmas has it all over Tu Bishvat.

Now for decades this miraculous interlude has offered me the most precious gift of little girls out of their freaking minds with anticipation. They're so excited, so hilariously gullible, so heartbreakingly sweet, so utterly consumed by the magic of Santa that I'm brought to tears year after year at the raw beauty of the whole, wretchedly excessive extravaganza. Even on this Christmas Eve, having figured out that the forthcoming "extra information" will unmask Santa once and for all, my youngest has requested pictures of Mr. . Claus and least one elf. And she's sleeping on the living room sofa next to the tree, with a camera poised beside her, just in case.

It's a paradox, and it's going to get a whole lot paradoxicalller. The "extra information" is a "Yes, Virginia" sort of justification: Santa, as I've always said, is real -- because all over the world, kids lay awake on Christmas Eve listening for his sleigh, and every Christmas they find treasures under the tree. Maybe you can't really see him, or touch him, and maybe Mom and Dad really bought the presents from Amazon with their Visa and had them shipped UPS, but that's still "Santa." It's all Santa. "Sweetheart, no, you can't take a real picture of Santa Claus. But you also can't take a picture of love. Santa is a feeling."

I have a feeling she already gets that. This year, after finally managing to slice open her Santa letter with a razor blade, and tearing out the stapled list in pieces, I found the most heart-breaking and magnificent thing of all. On the list with Mind Flex and the Nerf gun were third-party requests for Santa. "Expensive perfume for Mom" and "ventriloquist dummy for Dad." As I re-glued the envelope so she could post it the next day, tears rolled down my cheeks. Over a manufactured good.

To the Santa-Industrial Complex, thank you for that.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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