FOR a man, the denial of whose existence is the badge of membership in the Assorted Sophisticates, Cynics, and Empiricists of the World, Santa Claus has survived remarkably well. As a matter of fact, the belief of an enscrooged mankind is now probably the least of the old boy's worries.
But existence, too, has its adversities. When we saw that Claus could come down chimneys fully laden without even soiling his trousers (his manner of re-ascent has never been completely explored), and that, after visiting sancta where male feet never tread, he could continue his rounds not a whit diminished in vigor, we began to think of him as indomitable, as a sort of chubby, venerable Superman.
Who has ever thought otherwise? Who has ever considered Claus stupid or sinister? Or a criminal? No unspoiled infant, surely. But men of great power and responsibility, judges and prelates, have pulled this once-proud figure to depths of shame and obloquy.
A quarter of a century ago, when Claus was busy "spreading good cheer and good wishes" in a department store, he was forced for the first time to take legal action to assert his rights. The opinion of the court sets forth the situation:
"The children became familiar with 'Santa Claus' and they pulled at his clothes. Whether this conduct of the children necessitated a readjustment of his clothes, or whether appellant (Claus) merely desired to stop the same, is not clear; but he says that, because of this conduct of the children, he went into a room in the rear part of the store and there he undertook to light a cigarette. He...struck the match and started to light his cigarette, and (his) beard...caught fire, and appellant suffered a serious injury to his face and hands..."
Then followed the awful sentence in which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Minnesota tore apart the veil of infallibility that generations of adulation had woven. "Appellant was a single man (thus disposing of occasional commercial rumors of a "Mrs. Claus"), 51 years old (presumably an arbitrary figure), and...in order to bring him up to the average man, intellectually, he must be measured by a yardstick of considerable elasticity." Claus v. Hall Mercantile Co., 157 Minn. 290, 196 N.W. 261. We can sympathize with the hurt Claus, clutching frantically at his flaming whiskers, but the judicial finding of stupidity must stand, as it has never been overruled in the Minnesota courts.
Stupid he is then, but obviously a kindly, well-meaning old bumbler, spreading joy as best he knows how. Yet only last week, during a jurisdictional dispute between two labor unions in Toledo, Ohio, Claus was incarcerated in jail on the basis of his "previous criminal record" (The Toledo Blade, December 9). This would appear to be damning, but can we not say charitably in this season of love that the previous record of fault was a wild oat carelessly sown and repented? After all, how many beneficent builders of the nation's libraries, hospitals, and universities have buried their "robber baron" beginnings under a flood of gifts that is a mere trickle when compared to Claus' munificence over the centuries?
What can one say, however, in the face of the latest denunciation of Claus by a leadind church man? The Archbishop of Seville, though he is probably the world's champion ecclesiastical sourpuss, is a man of not inconsiderable influence in Spain. When he calls Claus "put of a Protestant maneuver to undermine the deepest Christian meaning, of our tradition" and says that he conceals" a sectarian aim hidden under the red grab of an Old Man who seems native but who has spent many hours of his life as a knave." (The New York Times, December 15) it is time for reexamination. We must recall the pastern of accusations in these times they are made first by psychopaths, next by ambitious legislators, and finally by grand juries.
If this is so, we may eventually find Claus working out his days on a rock pile, while Christmas stockings will be filled only by feet, and chimneys will have to be swept annually by chimney-sweeps. The essentials of guilt are there: Claus' advocacy of redistribution of wealth is notorious, and his proven stupidity simply stamps him as a willing tool of subversion. The Santa Claus legend may yet come to an end, not in disbelief, but in disgrace. Perhaps for kindly, well-meaning legends in these troubled times, non-existence is the best way out after all.