Editor’s note: Portions of this story were based on a column in the Knoxville News Sentinel. The News Sentinel no longer stands by it. As a result The Washington Post no longer stands by the account.
“Since publication,” the paper said, “the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify” the account provided by Eric Schmitt-Matzen, the Santa who told the story. “This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.”
For more, see this Post story.
In my house, there is still a Santa.
My children know. They are 16, 18 and 21, and they’ve known since they were in grade school that Santa is a fantasy and that their presents arrive not on a sleigh but in the trunk of our car.
But because I believe in the spirit of Santa, they still indulge me when I ask them what Kriss Kringle should bring them for Christmas. There is some eye-rolling. Still, they play along.
I was thinking of my refusal to let go of the legend while reading two news stories this week.
The first involved a Texas pastor who angered parents by yelling at kids in line to meet Santa that the man they were about to see was not real. The pastor posted his tirade on Facebook.
“Kids, I want to tell you today that there is no such thing as Santa Claus,” he says. “Santa Claus does not exist. The Christmas season is about Jesus. . . . And that’s the truth about Christmas. The man you are going to see today is just a man in a suit. . . . And, parents, y’all need to stop lying to your children. . . . There are no flying reindeer. There is no workshop at the North Pole.”
One irate parent confronts the pastor and says, “It’s not your decision for me to tell my kids what’s the truth and what’s not.”
The truth is that the Santa Claus myth can be traced to some reality. Historians say the basis for Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas, who reportedly used his inheritance to help the poor back in the 4th century in what is now Turkey.
Despite the pastor’s claim that he was just telling it like it is in the name of Jesus, he wasn’t acting Christ-like. I don’t believe — based on my study of Jesus — that Christ would have approved of his method of getting out his message. You don’t yell at children or their parents.
Now compare that scene with a story of a terminally ill 5-year-old and a Tennessee man who plays Santa.
As Knoxville News Sentinel columnist Sam Venable wrote, a nurse reached out to Eric Schmitt-Matzen, a mechanical engineer who plays a very convincing Kriss Kringle. The nurse had a patient who was dying, and he wanted to see Santa.
After being handed a present for the little boy, Schmitt-Matzen says he walked into the boy’s room. And here’s the rest of what happened, as he recounted to Venable:
“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!’
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down.
“ ‘They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
“He said, ‘Sure!’
“ ‘When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.’
“He said, ‘They will?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there.”
After you read that, how can you tell me there’s no Santa Claus?
I’m always encouraging parents not to spend more than they can afford on holiday gifts. But I hope they don’t take that advice to mean that they should lose the fun and fantasy around getting ready for Santa’s arrival. My kids so loved to create their wish lists. They always made cookies to set out. They used to stay awake in hopes of getting a glimpse of the man in the red suit.
I’m cheap, but I never wanted to cheat my children out of believing in Santa’s magic.
No one has a right to tell your children there isn’t a Santa. If you don’t believe, that’s fine. But I believe that the true story of Santa, whether based on Saint Nicholas or the accumulation of various cultural myths, is about the very real spirit of what he represents — love, joy, surprise and generosity.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@ washpost.com. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.