AT the risk of sounding like the Grinch that stole Scrooge, I must admit I don't believe in Santa Claus. Never have. The real meaning of Christmas is too profoundly spiritual to be represented by an overweight gnome with a beery flush to his cheeks. And children are too important to be fobbed off with a sack of glitzy dolls and baubles. Despite the name of that well-known purveyor of kids' items, toys aren't us: There's far more to childhood than that. So I found myself wondering recently what I would do if I were Santa Claus. What would I most want to give the world's children? If, sack on shoulder, I could slide down the global chimney, what would I leave behind for those who are both the most important factor in our future and the least represented group in our politics?
Well, I wouldn't simply leave things. Not in the Western world, at least, which is already pretty thingy. Kids do need things, of course. They need clothing, food, homes. They also need objects that bring buoyancy and delight into their lives - those few things, however small, that are their very own and have special meaning.
Beyond that, if I were Santa, I'd give them skills to cope with the world around them. I'd give them literacy. I'd give them a confidence in arithmetic, a feel for space and color, a sense of rhythm and harmony. I'd give them a hunger to know more about the past and a keen expectation about the future. I'd give them coordination, strength, discipline, and good aim.
But if I really were the Santa Claus of the mind, I'd want them to have ideas, qualities of character, habits of thought. The things of the world break down and dissolve. And even the world's finest skills can be used for the basest of purposes.
So I'd want them to have a sense of ethics. I'd want them, for example, to have a capacity for self-regulation, in order that they could spend more time obeying their own inner laws and have less need for laws other people laid on them.
I'd give them a sense of play, so that they could take a distance upon themselves and relish the silliness of everyday life.
I'd give them a deep desire to care for others - and a willingness to let themselves be cared for when they need it.
I'd give them intelligence, but never so much that it would blot out their willingness to trust their intuitions.
I'd give them an ability to listen, even when the physical and mental background noise is so loud that it's hard to hear.
I'd give them a respect for solitude and serenity, to balance today's headlong rush into popularity, society, and excitement.
Finally, I'd want them to grasp that satisfaction comes not from what they possess or can get but from what they think and can feel. The greatest gift I could give, I think, would be the realization that contentment is a spiritual circumstance rather than a set of physical gestures and responses.
And then, when I'd visited every hearth and cookstove, every inner-city radiator and jungle campfire, I'd reveal the three big secrets I'd learned by being Santa. First, you don't have to wait for Christmas to give kids these gifts: They're in stock year-round. Second, you don't have to be a teacher in a school or a parent in a home to give them these things: You give them wherever you are by the way you behave. Why? Because, third, there's nobody who's not still a kid. Everybody needs these things, and all of us need to love the child in ourselves enough to give them freely.
Of course, as I say, I don't believe in Santa Claus. But just imagine what a Christmas it would be if there were a Santa and if that's what she gave!