I have a vice to admit. I collect stamps. Blame my father for introducing me to philately at an early age. I don’t have the full-bore habit, though, if you know what I mean by bore. I’ll occasionally buy plate blocks when an interesting stamp appears. So when I heard that the Post Office (nobody really calls it the United States Postal Service) had issued a booklet of five different Santa Claus stamps, I eagerly rushed out to buy them.
These stamps are lovely, all right. They even tell a little story: Santa drops down the chimney, checks off items on his list, delivers the goods, waves at us by the fireplace, and flies away in his sleigh. What wonderful stamps with which to spread holiday cheer! I rushed them home to show to my 7-year-old. Her reaction was not the one I had anticipated.
“Why do they have Santa on a postage stamp?” she asked suspiciously.
“It’s Christmas,” I said in that bewildered parental tone.
“You said someone has to be dead to be on a stamp. Is Santa Claus dead?”
That hit me from left field. I almost exposed the entire centuries-old Santa conspiracy by saying, “Well, honey, the law doesn’t cover fictional characters.”
“You mean Santa’s not dead, he just isn’t real?”
Aieee! My mind raced. “No, muffin. I mean, uh. . .” She could tell I was concocting a whopper. “I mean the, um, pictorial representation of Santa Claus--who really is a real person living at the North Pole--is an imaginative interpretation by an artist. You see, it’s OK for the Post Office to print stamps reproducing artwork, and these are stamps made from paintings of Santa.” Did it work? Had I buffaloed my little impressionable one?
Her eyes narrowed. “Every stamp,” she said in a sternly patronizing tone, “is made from artwork. Paintings of living people aren’t allowed either. The Post Office is either saying that Santa Claus never existed or that he’s dead!”
I had to come clean with the kid. Here was an agency of the federal government undoing everything Jack Albertson had done in Miracle On 34th Street when he took the sacks of mail addressed to Santa Claus and delivered them to Jimmy Stewart filibustering in the Senate chambers. (Or did Stewart fly the mail to Paris with Donna Reed? I’ve got to stop watching those Stewart/Capra marathons.)
I had to come up with an explanation. Maybe if I told her Santa had the misfortune to carry some gifts wrapped by Libyan elves. . .
“Sweetheart,” I said, sitting her down. “I want you to brace yourself for a shock.” She looked up at me with her large, innocent blue eyes. “You’re a big girl now,” I said, “and big girls have to face the truth, no matter how painful it may be.”
Her voice caught in a tearful sob. “You mean. . .?”
“Yes, Vanessa, the Post Office lied. The mean old postal commissioner, whose name, I believe, is Ebenezer-something, decided that if he couldn’t force everyone to give him an extra cent for each letter they mail, he would tell all the girls and boys that Santa was dead. Yeah, that’s it! And he didn’t get that extra cent, so he tried to ruin Christmas for all the little boys and girls. The newspapers are calling it Santagate. Garry Trudeau is drawing a few strips about it.”
She looked crushed, as if all faith had been stolen from her. She ran to her room, crying, “I’ll never ever believe in any federal agency ever again! And I’ll seriously question any statements issued at the state and local level, too!” Her door slammed. I heard sobbing.
Feeling like the grandfather of all Grinches, I half-heartedly made some eggnog and sat in front of the fireplace, staring in gloom at the gaily decorated Christmas tree desiccating by the hearth. Nothing could break my mood.
My wife finally consoled me by saying, “She may have lost her faith in the government, darling, but at least she still believes in someone who offers her something for nothing.”
That’s true! And he delivers overnight and never loses a package.