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Hans and the Feast of Saint Nicholas

On a myth.

This morning I heard a familiar knock at my office window and turned to open it.

It was Hans, of course, dressed as only he could be in a billowing red garment that looked like a cross between a cartoon wizard’s robe and an infant swaddle.

“Ah,” he said, “this admirable garment protects me from the onslaughts of Shu.” (Hans has never been one for conventional greetings.) “Tell me, friend, whence comes this ‘microfleece’? It is of such exceeding softness that even the sweet pipes of Thyrsis in contest with the goatherd of Theocritus would fail to enumerate its virtues. What does your wife—to whose munificence I am indebted, for it was she who bestowed the laurels at the sacred games—know of these lambs?”

My attempts to explain that he was wearing synthetic fiber—technically an Ohio State University-branded snuggie that he had won as a gag prize in a game of charades at our house the previous year—were entirely fruitless.

“You must be mistaken. Perhaps later I shall consult that admirable Mechanical Dictionary of Herr Chambers. Anyway,” he said, walking toward the shelf of LPs, “we must not talk of such trifles. It is instead your—what is the word—Glaubenskrise that concerns me.”

I responded that, whatever my other faults, I had not experienced any doubts about my religion, though I was of course disappointed with the motu proprio issued in the previous year.

“Of course you repeat your litanies, as a good Christianist ought. But I refer instead to your Modernarian distemper—the same disease carried by such swine as Pastor Thurston, who dismissed the miracles of your holy saints, is evident in your contempt for the Weihnachtsmann.”

It was only after several minutes of wide-ranging reflection—on the historicity of the legends collected by the Brothers Grimm (he seemed to accept as a matter of course that they were all true), his limitless contempt for those who did not read the late Heidegger in continuity with Being and Time, the stupidity of some forgotten professor of Greek who had long ago persuaded him to abandon his university studies for the life of a private doctor, the triumph of compact discs, the disappearance of the McChicken sandwich from the Dollar Menu of blessed memory—that I discovered the actual source of Hans’s displeasure.

“I have learned from your eldest—the only child of yours whose name pleases me with its ancient piety—that you do not observe those venerable customs related to Santa Claus, whose gifts were in my own childhood said to issue from the bountifulness of the Christkind Himself. In Schlegel’s divine Hamlet”—one of Hans’s peculiar traits is refusing to acknowledge Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays put into German by the Romantic translators of Jena—we find those words: Es gibt mehr Ding im Himmel und auf Erden, als eure Schulweisheit sich träumt, Horatio. Do these mean to you then nothing?”

I explained to him that for us it was a very straightforward calculation. In the popular imagination, Santa had entirely displaced Our Lord as a symbol of Christmas; millions of children who would never be baptized or learn the Ave Maria eagerly awaited the appearance of an omniscient supernatural being who would supply them with garish overpriced plastic toys obviously made in Chinese sweatshops. Besides, when my wife had learned that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, her immediate response had been to question the existence of God. For her it had been a formative event, very nearly equivalent to when Hugh Trevor-Roper saw “the whole metaphysical world rise and vanish out of sight in the upper air” while strolling through Christ Church Meadow in 1936.

“Ah, but this is precisely the source of your error,” said Hans. “You do not stand in the position of releasement before the mystery and uncertainty of what is described with such force by the American clergyman Dr. Moore in his several papers. I must apologize for employing so many poetical quotations, but do you not know the work in question? The hour is very late; the heedless adults have retired, but the silent children experience ecstasies—then suddenly into the clearing he emerges from the sky, the dwelling of the gods, intruding, breaking forth, irrupting, disclosing all possibilities as the very elements re-awaken from standing-reserve—the muses, love, thunder, lightning, called forth by he who has driven them from Asgard, the deities of the air—and Being itself stands before us, at midnight with the hot clarity of noon! I am sorry, but you must surely know those lines, ‘As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly’? Here is the enowing, the appearance and coming together finally of things in themselves.”

To this I said nothing. For some minutes I studied Hans’s features—in the half decade or so of our acquaintance it suddenly occurred to me that his beard had grown slowly but imperceptibly white—in silence while we listened to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 (the Böhm recording; his choice). I had not previously noticed that he had brought a plastic Meijer grocery bag with him.

Hours after my friend had left (as always via the window) I found a box of candy—Dots, as it happens—lying in front of the back door.