All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
—Francis Pharcellus Church to Virginia O'Hanlon in The Sun of New York
Saint Nicholas. Father Christmas. Sinter Klaas. Santa Claus. Known by all these names and more, he is one of the most recognizable characters in Western consciousness. In the English-speaking parts of the world especially, but elsewhere as well, his image has been shaped by writers like Clement Clarke Moore and Charles Dickens, and even more importantly by visual artists like Thomas Nast, John Leech, and Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom, who also created the Quaker Oats label, did a series of paintings for Coca-Cola in the 1930s that essentially locked in Santa's image: often depicted previously in other colours (most often green) and sometimes as a younger, trimmer figure (see, for example, Leech's illustration of Dickens' "ghost of Christmas present"), he is now depicted almost exclusively as...well, I needn't bother with a description, for you all know what Santa Claus is supposed to look like.
And yet I see him differently: More barrel-chested than pot-bellied. His coat is not red, nor even green, but the subtle and beautiful brown of sealskin. There is perhaps just a bit of white fur trimming, from an arctic fox or maybe even a polar bear, taken reluctantly and with genuine reverence. Under his hood, his face is not pale and rosy-cheeked but the colour of an old penny. No beard; I can't even think where that idea might have come from. His nose is broad, and his eyes are narrow, genetics combining with a lifetime of squinting into bright Arctic sunlight reflecting off water, snow and ice to give him a look as sly as it is jovial. His age: indeterminate. Clearly he's an elder, no doubt a man of standing in his village, but he retains a certain youthful vigor, the natural athleticism of the hunter.
His traveling companions are not reindeer, but husky dogs, and they are hitched not in pairs along a gangline but in a fan pattern, Arctic-style, for there are no trees to get caught up on and few if any established trails to follow; the dogs spread out and run as a pack, which allows them to choose their own footing and probably feels more natural to them. His sleigh is light and flexible, as well-adapted to the conditions as the dogs that pull it.
I believe, based on excellent presents I have received over the years, that he is in fact a falconer. He flies a gyr, of course, at ptarmigan and Arctic hares. Its jesses are sealskin, its bells silver Pakistani ones acquired in the course of the old gentleman's travels. (Somehow I don't think he uses telemetry, trusting instead to his senses and the openness of the terrain to locate his hawk after a long flight.) When game is flushed, and only then, he does yell "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Otherwise, as befits a man who has spent half his life in close quarters in a small village, and the other half alone in the wilderness with his dogs and hawk, he is soft-spoken, his voice barely rising above a whisper, which might give strangers the impression that he is shy when in fact he is merely self-contained.
As for his kindness and generosity, again I believe those are explained by the realities of village life in the Arctic, where everyone is interdependent and a hunter's good fortune is naturally shared with others. Our man travels more widely than his neighbours, into regions where his generosity is considered remarkable, but at home he is just a solid citizen—as I said, a man of standing in the village. On these travels, he is pleased to help the locals celebrate Christmas, or Eid, or Kwanzaa, but he personally celebrates the winter solstice, when somewhere on the other side of the world the sun stands still and then reverses course, heralding the climax of the long Arctic night and the welcome return of daylight. For a man who lives in the elements, it could hardly be otherwise.
Yes, there is a Santa Claus. And I do believe firmly in him. If my beliefs are a bit unconventional, well, then, perhaps so am I, and the strangeness of my beliefs merely attests to their sincerity. I shall wear my gyrfalcon cap out hawking this afternoon as a tribute to Santa Claus and his travels as well as the return of snow to this part of the world. Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night.