I judge each child I meet based on her or his merits. I don’t always end up liking them, but at least those who receive my love have done something to deserve it. I’m not the only one who does.
On my daughter’s third Christmas, we marched her down to the Mt. Horeb public library to see Santa, a man famous for judging kids. Child after child plopped down on his lap to ask for an assortment of plastic things. Little did they know Santa wasn’t the only one judging them on that particular morning.
“Ho, ho, ho,” he said, really chewing on the limited dialogue. “What do you want for Christmas this year?”
“I have a Christmas tree, and a cat, and some snow, and some cookies,” Hadley replied proudly. “I have a mom and a dad at my house.” It’s possible she just misheard or misunderstood the question. She is three, after all. But I took it as a sign of her moral superiority. She didn’t want more stuff. She was already happy – proud, in fact – with what she had.
I glanced behind me to make sure the other parents were listening. Parenting is a competition, of course, and I was winning. I could’ve headed home and let her light off some fireworks while
she smoked a cigar, and I still would’ve been the best dad around, at least on that particular day.
I stood up to leave when she was done, and my knees creaked audibly under the strain. I was getting fat again, after all.
A couple years earlier, I decided to lose some weight. I stopped eating things everyone knows make you fat, and subsequently lost 60 pounds. Everyone thought I was dying. For some people – and apparently I fall squarely into this category – being thin brings with it distinct aesthetic unpleasantness. Like an emaciated, sallow-faced Santa Claus, my newfound leanness robbed me of my more jolly attributes.
“Are you okay?” people asked.
“I just stopped eating sugary things and drinking beer,” I said, stroking my beard. “I also stopped eating cheese, which is nice because dairy wreaks havoc on my stomach.”
I live in Wisconsin. I might as well have said I lost the weight running ultra marathons with my pet unicorn. In space.
“That can’t be right,” they all said. “Are you sure you’re OK?”
So I panicked. I decided to gain back a few pounds. By December, I once again found myself round and jolly, just like that most famous judger of children.
People think Santa is meant to teach kids that if you’re good, you’ll be rewarded. He’s not. The story of Santa is a myth, and like any mythology its power does not rely on any of its components being literally true. In fact, mythologies are more powerful, more universal and more alive, because they have been created, almost magically, out of nothing.
And he is real. After all, someone had to put all those presents in the stockings. Someone had to gobble all those cookies, even though his doctor recently told him to lose some weight, and guzzle all that milk, even though he’s lactose intolerant. A big-bellied man with a long beard and a bellowing laugh, who lives in a very cold place full of snow and ice. I can’t honestly tell my daughter he loves all children, but I can look her in the eye and swear that he loves her. I’ll tell her he loves her because he knows her, and therefore he knows she is worthy of love.