NEW YORK - Jamie Hook wants all those Santa doubters out there to know he was once one of them.
It wasn't long ago that a friend's son demanded the truth, and Hook and the father looked into the boy's solemn face and said that Santa was a lie.
It was only in the weeks afterward, watching the despondent 7-year-old drag his bookbag on the floor behind him as he shuffled off to school, that it occurred to Hook: How could he know what in this wide, unlikely world was truly true?
Ever since, Hook has been a little obsessed with Santa. And now he's arranged a public lecture in the back of a Brooklyn bar, hoping to convince a group of adult New York skeptics that magic, mystery, and even Santa Claus are very much alive.
Billing his lecture as a philosophical proof of the existence of Santa, Hook flicks through the evidence in a computer slideshow, wearing a dark blue turtleneck, cardigan, and glasses that lend him a professorial air. He runs through history and evidence - largely from children - but notes there are some things even he can't explain.
"We don't know the truth at all," Hook said earlier. "There's mysteries that bubble up within us that we can't explain and we can't understand. And those are humbling mysteries."
Attendees like Jenna Barvitski weren't so ready to be swayed.
The 23-year-old - formerly from what she calls a "naive suburb" in Ohio, now very much a jaded New Yorker - doesn't exactly like the jolly, red-cheeked gift-bearer.
"It's something that American culture has manufactured to support capitalism," she says. Santa is "pretty silly."
Hook has come to believe that the value of Santa extends far beyond anything the figure has offered to advertising executives, or Christmas shoppers, or department-store holiday displays.
The man we know as Santa Claus has been around for centuries under one name or another, Hook tells his audience.
At one time, children were told if they misbehaved that Santa's sidekick would come and drag them off to Hell. Later, he was sometimes imagined as an odd-looking elf. It wasn't until the 1930s that Coca-Cola advertising helped turn him into the jolly, white-haired man now embedded in our collective imagination.
In his lecture, Hook turns to the real experts: showing videos of his interviews with children about Santa Claus, and even interviewing audience members live about their memories and the moment they became nonbelievers.
One woman in the audience remembers the arrangements her father made so they could go to the coast with a two-way radio and talk to Santa as he flew overhead. It was an experience filled with wonder.
Another audience member, 26-year-old David Connelly, says Santa is "part of the world being magical as a child."
"I still have a warm, not completely describable feeling around Christmas that I wouldn't have if I hadn't believed as a kid," he says.
Even adult believers are not as rare as you might think. On Facebook, the "I Believe in Santa Claus" group has passed the 230,000-member mark. Eileen Migliacci-Smith, one of the group's officers, says that even when she sees Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade or in the mall, she gets teary.
"It used to be said that it's for kids, but I don't think it is," she says. "Santa Claus represents giving and being with family to me."
For Hook, confronted at the Brooklyn bar with a room of skeptics who have been promised a demonstration of the truth of Santa Claus, the ultimate proof is one of faith. Because, in the end, it can only be faith: in the spirit of giving, and in the unknown.
"When you watch these kids, you realize that there is such a thing as belief. . . . We here in this room are in a world that lacks belief, profoundly."
A moment later, the barkeep walks in with proof of his own: "Santa left a whole bunch of free beers on the bar!"