Now I like to think I’m as cynical and jaded as the next guy, but I can’t let this bratty little eight-year-old's comment pass unchallenged as she points triumphantly to the MADE IN CHINA sticker that adorns the head tube of the tiny blue bicycle. Maybe it is the tears welling up in the eyes of her younger brother, eyes that had been filled with only wonder a second ago. Maybe it is the world-weary, lecturing, superior tone of this certain cynical little girl that makes me add her to my own mental NAUGHTY list. Maybe it is the horrified look on the face of the kid’s harried mother that moves me from being a bike mechanic turned bike salesman into something of a story-teller. Maybe it has been a slow Christmas season at the shop and I really don’t want to lose a sale.
Whatever the true story, what I do is open my big mouth. The mom is focused on the little boy, trying to undo the damage wrought by little miss know-it-all’s heartless words, so I direct my words at the small cynic herself.
“Congrats,” I say, “You’ve figured out most of the story.” I am taking a gamble, appealing to the girl's intellectual pride, but when I see a flicker of confusion cross her brow, replacing the wickedly gleeful certainty that was there a second before, I know I have her.
“Of course Santa’s not real,” she presses, “He’s just a lie adults tell to kids. Presents come from Mom and Dad. And stores like this. And China!”
“Yep,” I agree, carefully not contradicting her jaded world-view, “Adults do sometimes lie to kids and I make my living putting bikes together and fixing bikes and selling them to families like yours. That’s all true, but it’s not the whole story...”
The little girl’s BS meter is probably hovering around eight when I start talking, but I can tell a good story when I need to. The little brother stops crying and he and Mom as well as the girl listen as I continue. I have to make this good.
“The whole Santa, reindeer, chimneys, coal in the stocking thing, I mean, come on, who buys that?” Mom is starting to look real concerned at me and the boy is looking confused but the little girl is nodding. I press my advantage.
“But the truth, kid, it’s even wilder than you know. What’s your name?”
“Mary,” the girl replies, unsure where I am headed with this. Truth be known, I am kind of wondering that myself.
“Well, Mary,” I continue, “the Devil’s greatest lie is convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.” The Usual Suspects reference flies right over Mary’s head and Mom shoots me a world-class eye-roll, but I am on a roll of my own and continue. “And the only way Santa can possibly get everything done is with the help of guys like me and little girls like you who figure out that he’s not real.”
Mary is looking good and puzzled now. “But he’s not real...”
“Right,” I said, “He counts on you thinking that.”
“So you’re saying he is real?” There’s a flicker of something other than certainty in Mary’s question. Maybe it’s doubt. Maybe it’s hope.
“Look,” I say, switching conversational gears. Maybe I’m trying to distract her and maybe I’m stalling for time. Maybe I’m drawing on a trick I learned from an old philosopher. “Let’s forget about Santa for a minute, let’s talk about Bigfoot.”
“Bigfoot?” Mary, mom and the boy all ask at the same time.
“Yeah, Bigfoot? Real or not?”
“Totally fake.” Mary is back to being certain.
“Certainly,” I agree, “Made up to sell magazine and movies. And Espresso. There’s a Bigfoot-themed Espresso stand up north on Highway 2. But what does Bigfoot look like?”
“Duh, he’s big. Hairy, with big feet.”
“Yep,” I say, “that’s him. For a completely imaginary creature, you know a lot about him. Now how about a gorilla, real or fake?”
“Real,” Mary replies, “I saw one at the zoo.”
“But a few hundred years ago, nobody had a gorilla in zoo, everybody thought they were fake. Did the gorilla become real when it was captured, or was it real all along?”
“Real all along.”
“Yep and if we never captured one, never saw one, would it still be real?”
“Yes?” Mary doesn’t sound quite so certain.
“Yes,” I reassure her, “and if Bigfoots are very careful, very cautious creatures that are smart enough to mostly stay very far away from men, then maybe those magazines and movies and Espresso stands aren’t entirely fake. A thousand fake Bigfoots doesn’t mean Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Those thousand fake Bigfoots were probably inspired by something, don’t you think?
“I don’t know,” Mary says.
“Neither do I, Mary. Neither do I. But let’s get back to Santa.” I don’t have all afternoon to make this sale.
“If there is a Santa, he can do magic stuff, like fly all around the world in one night and deliver toys everywhere spreading joy. That’s an amazing power. And with great power comes great responsibility.”
“That’s what Spiderman says,” Mary comments, catching my reference this time.
“That’s what Spidey says and Spidey is right.” I agree. “Santa won’t use his amazing toy-making and delivering powers to put hardworking guys like me out of business. I’ve got to eat. And folks in factories making stuff, that’s how they make a living. So Santa helps us out. Santa helps us sell stuff.
“So it’s all marketing...”
“Not quite,” I explain. “Marketing only works if people have money to buy stuff. And a lot of people have a lot less than you do or I do. Maybe they don’t have any money. But if they have something to believe in, somebody who believes in them, then somehow Santa brings them Christmas.”
“Money is tight this year, I’m hoping to sell a few more bikes but if folks can’t afford our new bikes I tell them to try Bike Works where some of my buddies are working like elves to refurbish a bunch of used bikes for Christmas. And just last week a nice old couple were in here buying a couple of bikes for some kids in their church who they knew didn’t have much money. They said Santa told them to buy those bikes. They seemed like really nice people, I don’t think they were lying to me.”
“I still don’t think Santa is real,” Mary insists.
“Good!” I laugh, “He’s counting on you thinking that. There is no way his elves can build all the bikes for all the kids in the world. All the fake Santas in all the malls and all the fake elves in all the bike shops don’t make Santa any less real. Your brother can ask for a bike from Santa, you can ask your mom for a bike from me. Do you think I’m real?”
“I think you’re a very strange man, “ Mary says.
“Yeah, I hear that a lot.”
Mary’s mom comes back later without the kids and buys three bikes.
“OK,” I say as I’m ringing up the sale, “I know the blue one is for the boy and the bigger bike is for Mary, but whose the third one for?”
“Santa,” the woman tells me, “He’ll make sure it gets to someone who really needs it. Merry Christmas.”