Orlando R. Barone

is a writer in Doylestown

Santa came on Christmas Eve.

Or did he?

There are definite holes in the Santa story. Enna, my 5-year-old granddaughter, recently happened on one.

"What is Mrs. Claus' name?" she asked me shortly before Christmas.

"Mrs. Claus," I said reasonably.

Didn't fly.

"But what's her name? Like my mommy's name is Tanya."

I've heard about Mrs. Claus my whole life. I've seen drawings of her. I know she pulls Santa's boots off after a long night of toy delivering. But her name?

I told Enna I didn't know.

She nodded like Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. Another nail in the coffin of the Santa legend. I should have been quicker, I know.

"It's Ethel," I should have said unhesitatingly. "Ethel Claus."

She'd have gotten no corroboration for this invention, true, but it might have appeased her.

Her cousin Luke, a few months older than Enna, has already questioned the biggest breach of Santa logic.

"How can Santa go to every house in one night?"

This proposition is laden with issues, a feast for the skeptic. Timing is only one. How can he carry all those gifts? How can reindeer fly? How about homes with no fireplace?

The whole thing is impossible even to imagine. There are, after all, upwards of seven billion people on Earth. It was much more feasible when I was a kid and only two billion or three billion folks dotted the planet.

Luke has been increasingly skeptical of adult assertions about Santa Claus. I think it's because he is developing grave doubts about adults in general. The other day he asked about war.

His uncles had been in the Middle East in uniform during hostilities there. I assured him that his uncles were brave and that their actions were performed to protect us.

"Why do people make war?" he asked.

Luke usually has answers to his questions, so I waited. He came up with the age-old query:

"Why don't they just talk it out?"

We think we have answers to that question, usually centering on the conviction that the enemy is just incorrigible, but Santa, whose yearly world tour has survived our worst wars and most desperate moments, suggests a novel response.

He is a man with no citizenship or allegiance to any country; he lives at the North Pole, on which no flag is raised. He flies the globe using 100 percent local energy sources. His only alliance with other countries is the irrevocable letter of transport enabling him to cross every border.

He lives this hard, cold life for one and only one purpose: to give gifts on a day that actually celebrates talking it out as opposed to fighting it out.

Years ago, when my own children were believers, their public school held a "day of peace" around the holidays. One of the invited guests was a Navy captain from the nearby base. He sat as speaker after speaker talked of alternative ways to handle conflict, from family squabbles to bullying to all-out war. I wondered what he would add to the conversation.

He stunned me, as in full uniform he stood at the mic smiling and looking at the faces of beautiful children and earnest adults.

"I love what I've heard today," the captain said. "Maybe if you are successful in what you are trying to do here, one day I'll be out of a job. What a great day that will be."

My oldest granddaughter, Sydney, says she no longer thinks Santa does the Christmas Eve thing. She played along for the sake of her siblings, Luke included. Before Christmas she was discussing with me how tricky it is to keep the myth alive.

I told her I didn't find it hard. "You do realize, I still lie in my bed every Christmas Eve and listen for the prancing and pawing of each little hoof." She knows this is true, and she smiled and said so.

The gifts are unwrapped now, the cookies and milk mysteriously consumed. Enna and Luke showed no signs of doubt. Santa came, as far as they are concerned. Ethel, I suppose, has removed his boots and let him rest.

I listened hard again this year. As long as kids like Luke prefer talking it out, teens like Sydney choose to perpetrate the possibility of gifts freely given, and warriors like that Navy captain yearn for a world at peace, well, I'll keep listening.

Maybe next Christmas Eve I'll catch the echo of prancing hooves rewarding faith with gifts, hope with peace, and love with a child smiling and a Navy captain hanging up his uniform.