Listener Essay - Desperately Seeking The White Bearded Whale Of Rhinebeck

Dec 4, 2014

  Jackie Mercurio lives with her husband, five children, and black Lab in New York. She was recently named Winner of the Good Housekeeping Memoir Contest (2014). Her website is

Desperately Seeking The White Bearded Whale Of Rhinebeck

One summer, at the Dutchess County Fair, my young daughter believes she met Santa Claus: the overweight man who stood near us at the pretzel concession, wearing a straw fedora, denim overalls, and a long billowy beard the color of white sugar. When he pulled some cash from his cargo pocket, a coin spilled to the pavement, and my daughter followed his rolling nickel, picking it up and running back with it on her open palm. The heavy-set man then bent down to her level, his hands on his knees, and said, "Why, what a good little girl."

And that was all this stranger had to do, to convince my pig-tailed six-year-old that, Yes, definitely Mommy, he was the one, he was Santa Claus.

One summer later, we find ourselves back at the Dutchess County Fair. Where most people are here to observe the pinkest pig or the tallest cornstalk or to cast a vote in the cow costume contest, my daughter and I are here on a mission, a search for the jolly old man, white-bearded whale of Rhinebeck, Mr. Santa Claus.

Aiming for the long view, we get on the ferris wheel, and ride in a two-seater cart that sways with the slightest move. At the top, my daughter scours the crowd, her fingers sticky pulling cotton candy. I scan the crowds too, but it is she who spots him first. This time, though, it is a different overweight man. This one is a chubby white bearded man with a fawn-colored Chihuahua under his arm. She points the pink cotton candy at him. "Santa! Santa!" Our two-seater cart is the only one that rocks vigorously with her excitement. "Santa! I'm here!" The man looks up, and so does a crowd of fair goers.

I’m tempted to say something to her about him being a different man than the Santa she saw last year, but there's something about the her joyful expression that makes me pause. And in that moment, with the two of us rocking, I look down at the crowd, and see the world through my daughter's eyes.

It is a world filled with faith, to believe in something so deeply you become elevated, joyful in the moment, flying. To tell her it is not Santa would be no different than for me to plant my two feet on the ground, and for no reason, reel in a colorful kite that has its tail gloriously sailing in the wind. Let her feel this joyful moment, I think. Let her fly. Because this is joy, and joy is a gift that cannot be bought or wrapped or set under the tree. It's a gift that just is, coming from within, only in spurts throughout life, and never lasting long.

In my religion, it is understood that Christ is the main course of the holiday. And we've all heard how Santa takes away from the meaning of Christmas, how he commercializes something sacred. But I say, let Saint Nick be the side dish, the sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows. The same way we learn our letters before writing our name, the belief in Santa is an exercise in faith, and faith, no matter which one - Judaism, Muslim, Buddhism, etcetera, can only be positive. It allows you to search for something greater than yourself, to find that joy, to be good.

Martin Luther King Jr., once said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

So from the top of the ferris wheel, my daughter takes the first step and waves devotedly at her beloved Santa—and so do I. But the chubby bearded man looks away, keeps walking. His little brown Chihuahua, however, crawls to the top of his shoulder, peering up with two black eyes and pointy ears, and that was all the recognition my daughter needed to settle into our cart, to reach for my hand, and say, "That was him. I know it."