One of the most remarkable developments during my many years of travel as a journalist was the time I interviewed Santa Claus.
It was March 2004, and I was in Tokyo for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays-New York Yankees opening series. Our first afternoon there, I came across Herr Kringle strolling through the 400-year-old Japanese garden adjacent to our hotel, the New Otani. He was alone, unattended, not a reindeer in sight. I got the distinct impression he wanted to be left alone. But I was a journalist. This was news. I approached the Jolly Old Elf and introduced myself.
I pulled out my digital recorder and notebook and proceeded to conduct the interview of a lifetime.
Here’s how it went down.
Carter Gaddis: I apologize for interrupting your meditation, Mr. Claus.
Santa Claus: Please, call me Santa. And I understand. You have a job to do. You mind if we keep this short, though? I have a breakfast reservation in Paris.
CG: Paris? But we’re in Tokyo.
SC: Hello? Magic elf.
CG: Sure. Of course. Sorry.
SC: Look, if you don’t have any questions …
CG: No, no. Yes, well … um. I guess the first thing is, how is this even possible? You’re not real.
SC: And “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” right?
CG: Well, yeah. Who’s that, Locke? Hobbes?
SC: Hume. So, what do you deduce from the evidence? Wait, let me make it easy for you. You’ve studied your Pascal, yes? You’re familiar with his “wager” theory about belief in God? No? Well, it’s like this. Are you willing to gamble away potential eternal bliss spent basking in the presence of the almighty creator simply because you can’t bring yourself to believe in Him? I mean, what if you’re wrong? If you’re right, that there’s no God, all you’ve lost is an infinitesimal blip of time in the immeasurable immensity of eternity. Not a bad bet, that. In this case, the odds are heavily in your favor, because here I am. Think about it like this: Your eyes tell you I’m real, correct? With that piece of evidence, and knowing that not believing I’m real means you’re doomed to a lifetime of no presents at Christmas time, it is in your best interest to just go ahead and let yourself believe. Right?
CG: But …
SC: Buddy, I really can’t stay much longer. We can stand here and debate my existence for the next three minutes, if you like. And when I disappear into thin air on my way to the Champs Elysees for œufs brouillés a la truffes noires, you can stand here holding your … notebook. It’s your dime.
CG: OK. Yes. So, let’s say you are you. You’re really Santa Claus. How do you deliver toys to all the good little boys and girls on a single night? The whole sleigh and flying reindeer thing seems a bit unlikely, to be honest.
SC: I have a T.A.R.D.I.S.
CG: A … what?
SC: A T.A.R.D.I.S. You know, blue police call box from England. Bigger on the inside. Travels through time and space? Like Doctor Who.
CG: Doctor Who?
CG: But that’s not …
SC: Real? Ho! Ho-ho-ho! Of course not. I was kidding. No, but yeah. It’s magic. I use magic. Simple, really. The reindeer are just for show. Mrs. Claus runs an arctic animal rescue up north, so I just – do what I do – and voila! Flying reindeer. The actual gift delivery system is far beyond your comprehension. There are too many moving parts to simplify the explanation. Let’s just call it magic and leave it at that.
CG: I’m sorry, that’s not good enough. I need to know how you do it. I need to know how to tell the world you’re real. Explain it to me like I’m a fifth grader.
SC: A fifth grader? Funny you should pull that particular time of life out of the ether.
CG: Funny how?
SC: Because that’s when you stopped believing. Remember? Even after you spotted all those toys in the foyer closet when you were 5, you wanted to keep believing. So, you did. You kept believing in me because that’s what you wanted to do. And that still applies today. To you, and to everyone in the world. Do you understand what I’m saying?
CG: Sure, but I don’t think it applies. I mean, you’re not real. You’re an inherited Western European archetype, based loosely on Germanic paganism and later Western religions, seasoned with a healthy sprinkling of good, old-fashioned capitalism. It’s all about corporate symbolism now. Is that the message we want to teach our kids? That it’s OK to perpetuate a vast, fantastical myth that celebrates commercialism and the all-mighty holiday dollar?
SC: OK. Well, I don’t know what else to tell you. Except this: Sartre was on the right track when he wrote, “In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.” You see?
CG: That doesn’t answer my question.
SC: Your question doesn’t have an answer. I’ve got to go. Merry Christmas!
CG: It’s March.
SC: I know. Ho-ho-ho! Bye.
And like that … he was gone.
As you can see, the interview was a disaster, which is why I sat on the story until now. It was nothing more than an incoherent mishmash of pop philosophy and obscure science fiction allusions. I didn’t have a camera on me (no iPhones back then), so I could produce no photographic evidence. My recorder crapped out after I transcribed the conversation, so I even lost the audio proof. I haven’t seen Santa since.
I believe, though. I decided to believe, and I did. In my portrait, the one I made for and of myself, Santa Claus is real. Just as every religion, every mythology is true in the sense that it is metaphorical of the mysteries of existence, Old Saint Nick is a metaphor. For me, he’s a combination of kindness, generosity and the wonder of imagination. I’m leaning toward zombie Santa at the moment, too.
What else does Santa symbolize? Depends on who you ask. Your portrait is yours, and yours alone.