I don’t believe in Santa Claus. Every Christmas of my life, my Christmas presents have been marked with the words “From Mom & Dad.” But I am pretty sure that I met him a few weeks ago at a little cafe in Northern Michigan.

I had just gotten lost for an hour on a back road. Luckily, the teenagers I was supposed to be dropping off for a canoeing trip thought my directional incompetence was hilarious. While I was waiting for them to finish their trip, I pulled up to a brightly colored cafe, the only sign of a restaurant for miles. I found a seat in the corner and pulled out a book to read, when my reading was rudely interrupted by an elderly man sitting a few tables over.

“Do I know you from somewhere?”

I looked up to see Santa Claus in a yellow polo, smiling jovially at me. I tried to deny any association with the man and get back to my book, but he gestured me over. Begrudgingly, I shuffled over. Before long I was seated at his table, eating my breakfast burrito and listening to him ramble on about the local waterfalls, the crème brulée he likes to bake for the employees here, and his passion for the COVID-19 vaccination.

Before long, we got into the stories that he clearly loved most: his adventures being Santa Claus for a local shelter. Before even beginning one of his favorite stories, he warned me that he might cry:

Many decades ago, in the height of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze, he was working a Christmas party. At the beginning of the party, a small girl informed him that the ONLY thing she wanted for Christmas was a Cabbage Patch doll. Nothing else would be acceptable. His heart immediately sank. Despite their best efforts, nobody at the shelter could locate the dolls because of their popularity.

At the close of the night, the girl adamantly complained that Santa had let her down, because her dearest wish hadn’t come true. He patiently explained the situation, and agreed to look through the bins of leftover gifts with her to find something similar. As they searched together, he heard the girl yell out in excitement. She had found not one, but TWO twin Cabbage Patch dolls in the bins and Santa had made her wish come true.

He questioned all his fellow volunteers, and nobody had any idea where the two dolls had come from.  

True to his word, tears streamed from his kind eyes as he finished this story. He truly believed in the Christmas magic of this story. And as he told more stories, crying each time, I began to believe in the Christmas magic as well. Earlier that day I had been crying over the phone, trying to find the canoe drop-off point and anxious I wouldn’t get back in time for the closing celebrations at camp that night. Now here I was, with a man clearly overflowing with love for everyone in his life. A man who drew inspiration from helping other people.

This man who claimed to know me right when he saw me. Who wanted to know about my job. Who sat with me for an hour telling stories of genuine Christmas magic.

It doesn’t really matter if Santa Claus is or isn’t real. What matters is that this man felt as full of love as the man in Miracle on 34th Street.

At the climax of C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, there is a scene that I reread constantly. The evil witch is trying to convince them that all there is in the world is the darkness and terror of the underworld they currently inhabit. And this one character, named Puddleglum, responds with this whole rant about how he chooses to believe in a better world. At one point he declares, “All I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.”

As I said goodbye to my Santa Claus, in his yellow polo, I couldn’t help but think of those words. Whoever this man was, he truly loved the people in his life. Which seems a good deal more important.

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