For older believers, Santa's magic is ageless

At the Merrifield Garden Center in Virginia, Santa has appeared for 30 years, attracting many late believers that say Santa Claus is real.
By Annie Gowen
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Galen Henderson is 11 years old, and she believes in Santa Claus.

She is steadfast in this belief, despite taunts from other kids on the bus and in the cafeteria, who tell her: He can't possibly be real. Santa is a big fat fraud in a red suit. How could he get all those presents out to every child in the world in one night?

"I hear it at school, mostly. I just say, 'Sure, if you think that, then you can think that,' " Galen said with an airy shrug.

She's certain they're wrong because she has met the real Santa at, of all places, a garden center in Fairfax County. She has been going to see him every Christmas since she was little. Last year, he remembered that her dog's name is Eli, and he brought her a Wii her family couldn't afford.

Her conviction is shared by other late believers, a small but stubborn band of fourth-, fifth- and even sixth-graders who refuse to bow to conventional wisdom on the question of Santa's existence. Like Galen, many eagerly wait in line for hours to see Santa at the Merrifield Garden Center in Falls Church each year, jockeying for space with toddlers and their parents in a garland-and-light festooned Santa house.

Santa has been appearing there for more than 30 years and has a slavishly devoted cult following, with many families returning every holiday. He is a wonder to kids and parents alike, with a mysterious knack for intuiting a child's deepest desires and recalling details about their lives.

His ability to instantly summon the names of visitors he hasn't seen in a year or more attracts late believers in droves. Their legs droop nearly to the ground when they sit on his lap. Their scribbled wish lists go far beyond dolls and firetrucks to iPods and digital cameras.

Even the doubters find him difficult to explain. Or to resist.

Before Kate Nette, a 10-year-old from South Riding, sat on Santa's lap, she was full of skepticism. She had dismissed him as "a guy in a suit who gets paid to be there." Then he asked how her field trip had been that day. As it happened, she had been on a field trip that day.

"Totally random," she told her cousin Daniel Nette, 12, afterward. Her doubt was wavering.

"Freaky," Daniel agreed. "Maybe he has elves that are spies." He eyed his mother, Janice. "Maybe you're one," he said.

Children traditionally lose faith in Santa at age 8, polls say. But Charlotte Reznick, a child educational psychologist and author of a book called "The Power of Your Child's Imagination," said she often meets late believers in her practice.

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