Shenandoah Conservatory assistant professor's novel deals with the Christmas legend's origins
By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER -- The question may seem like a difficult one to answer to the parent who is approached by an innocent child, but when James J. Ruscella is asked if Santa is real, he replies with a resounding "Yes!"
Ruscella, assistant professor of theater and director of Shenandoah Conservatory's acting program, released his novel "Kris: The Legend Begins" on Oct. 15, following the creation of a screenplay which delves into the untold origination story of the man known as Santa.
In 1995, Ruscella "stepped in for Santa because he was busy" at an event, and it was there he realized "we never truly grow up."
"These three fathers came up to me and asked for a picture, and I asked them, 'Have we been good this year?'" Ruscella said, laughing. "And one of them looked at me and very seriously said, 'Yes.' That moment showed me that there are open heart strings in adults."
Ruscella then began looking for the story that would reconnect those heart strings in adults to the hero of their childhood -- Santa -- and what he would have to teach them that they weren't ready to learn when they were children.
In 2001, Ruscella started a 10-year journey researching and exploring the story of Santa, and that led him 300 miles above the Arctic circle to meet the Sampi people. The Norwegians refer to the tribe members as "elves" and they live as reindeer herders in homes made out of earth.
"They have a story of a man who wears a red jacket and rides on a reindeer around the world to deliver presents to children," he said. "This guy is part of their constellations, and what's interesting is they're a Christian people with their own lore and legends ... it's all stuff you can look up!"
Ruscella incorporated all the findings into a screenplay, which birthed his recent novel.
"In the story, there are no inherently magical moments, but in no way does it interfere with the child's understanding of Santa," he said. "Instead, it fills in some gaps to help the imaginations of adults."
The novel, according to Ruscella, speaks to logic, joy and tragedy, as well as how to make the most out of challenges with which life presents us.
"Challenges are opportunities for growth, and they create the ability for us to value joy," he said. "Santa's laughter is genuine, because he understands the gift of a life well lived."
Ruscella also has taken on another online project, which features an advent calendar of 25 videos of Santa telling stories, sharing memories, and teaching little life lessons.
"He tells us what he prays for on Christmas Eve, what his favorite Christmas song is and even the meaning of the names of his reindeer," said Ruscella. "The advent calendar, in that way, is a representation of the heart of Santa and his good, wholesome message: Be the Santa in you."
Santa's favorite story, Ruscella said, is "The Gift of the Magi" because of the meaning behind it.
"The true gift is to have someone who loves you more than they love themselves," he said. "Santa talks to adults about that too ... children are a gift, and they teach us the gift of selflessness and that there is somebody more important than us."
While the screenplay and novel include some religion, Ruscella said that Santa is not "preachy," though he is a "God-honoring man."
"In fact, his faith is actually challenged in the novel," he said. "But he embodies the ideals that are consistent with Christmas ... even if it's not in his mouth, it's in his actions."
Through his research, Ruscella learned that there are about 170 gift giver legends in the world, each with their own histories, myths and characters, but they all resemble in some way what Americans refer to as Santa. Christmas, he said, is reinvented every 40 to 60 years, with new traditions and individual icons and imagery.
"Social media is a great thing for Santa, because he's a trans-media character," said Ruscella. "His story is told through his picture on a Coke bottle, or his portrayed voice in a movie, or in a song describing who he is as a person. Through all that, we get this common consciousness of the character."
"In the next 20 years, as we become a global community, we will also develop global legends," he added. "So the question is, what will the identity be of the global Santa?"
Ruscella will hold two book signings in Winchester, one from 2 to 5 p.m. Dec. 8 at Books-A-Million, and another from 1 to 3 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Winchester Book Gallery. Copies can be found at the two stores, as well as online at Amazon.com.
But, he won't be dressed as jolly Old Saint Nick.
"Playing Santa is intimidating," he said. "I mean, I've got my MFA in acting from one of the top schools in the country, in the world even, but when you play Santa there's a responsibility ... the suspension of disbelief is different. I try to leave Santa to Santa, unless he needs me to step in ... maybe when I grow up a bit."
All in all, Ruscella said he feels the question of whether or not Santa is real is one that "everyone must answer themselves."
"I look around the world to see hundreds and hundreds of children wake up on Christmas morning with gifts under their tree, and that miracle itself has to prove something," he said. "Santa is more than just a man who comes down a chimney ... I have never questioned, never doubted that he is real."
To learn more about Ruscella's project and his latest book, go to santaisreal.com.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org