Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Importance of Being Santa

I don't remember when I found out that there was no Santa Claus.  It's one of those horrible truths that creeps up on you in the playground, or on the doorstep of a neighbor's house.  One child uncovers the conspiracy, and she can't keep the knowledge to herself.  Once you know the truth, it nestles in your heart, and troubles you.  Do you tell other children?  Do you tell your siblings?  Do you let your parents know that the jig is up, or do you milk it for as long as you can?  Or, do you struggle with denial?  Maybe this other child was simply on the dreaded Naughty List.  Spreading horrible lies about Santa would certainly qualify her.

Many years later, early in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas, my parents woke me and asked me to come help them wrap presents.  I was the oldest of the kids -- probably a teenager by then -- and I had intellectually understood for many years, at that point, that there was no Santa Claus.  Yet, for some reason, taking part in the whole ritual of placing presents under the tree, the night before Christmas, was a huge disappointment for me.  It was as though I had somehow chosen to suspend some small part of my disbelief all of those years, and I was finally forced to let go of that last little vestige of it.

When I was at University, I played on a few text MUDs (Multi-User-Dungeons for the young'uns out there), and was particularly fond of a particular TinyMUSH (a species of MUD).  After a few years playing there, I was made a "Wizard."  Essentially, a MUD Wizard is an online game administrator, but the job also requires a strange blend of programming, game design, and customer service.  When I took the position, and first started trying out the administrative features, and looking at the code for the "globals" (system-wide game commands), I felt the same creeping feeling of disappointment, from that Christmas morning, all over again.

There seems to be a very real psychological difference between knowing that there is a man behind the curtain, and being the man behind the curtain.  Even when we intellectually understand that he is there, our brains still cling to wisps of magic, here and there.  And yet, we need that man behind the curtain to be there.   Indeed, even with our earliest forms of entertainment -- our myths, legends, and tall tales -- someone, somewhere, took liberties, and was fully aware of the artifice involved.

Magic is made by people.  But why would we ever choose to be the ones who had to live with the disappointment of making it?  Why do parents play Santa?  It brings joy to others.  There may be other reasons to pull levers, fabricate stories, apply makeup, and composite space ships into the sky, but the most important reason is that it brings joy to our audience.

I suppose that it is also true that some of us will always take the red pill, when given the chance.  I once hacked a game save file just to fix up the eyeshadow color of my character.  When her entire existence is reduced to so much data in a hexadecimal editor, it's hard to take her very seriously.  Maybe I'll find magic again when I'm senile.  For now, I'm still tinkering with the gears way too much.

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