I think it was the snow that dusted the East Tennessee countryside this week, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the ghosts of Christmas past lately.
Forty-four years ago, and I'm 4 years old. A tunnel of toys and lights constructed in the old West Town shopping mall — Sears, I think it was — leads to Santa's throne. I walk hand-in-hand with my mother, wide-eyed at the boxes and packages of shiny new toys stacked to the ceiling. I stand in line filled with awe and trepidation, and a little bit of fear.
Flash-forward: I'm 6 years old, and my childhood friend, Tim, and his family sharing Christmas Eve at our house. Tim's father reads the Christmas story from the book of Luke, and we sit attentively, my young mind straining to draw parallels between the baby Jesus, born on a cold night a long time ago in a faraway manger, and the presents I hope to find under the tree the next morning.
Our parents, smiling gently and winking to each other, tell us that bedtime approaches, because Santa is on his way. We stand at the sliding glass door in the den of our old house, faces pressed to the frosted glass, staring intently into the night sky lit with thousands of stars, hoping to see a tiny sleigh on the horizon.
I'm 8, and my father is tucking me into bed, resigned to the task of putting together toys well into the early-morning hours while I slumber.
“Daddy? Is Santa Claus real?'”
A simple question, but to answer it alters a kid's childhood forever. It's a symbolic step toward adulthood, one where Christmas becomes a little less magical. It's the bursting of a bubble, a protective one that surrounds boys and girls and keeps the harsh, often cruel realities of adulthood at bay for as long as possible.
I saw it in my father's eyes, even though I didn't recognize it then. I was on the inside of that bubble, poking at it tentatively. He told me the truth, shaking his head with a sadness I rarely see.
“You and Mom buy the presents, don't you? And you drink the milk and eat the cookies we leave out.”
He only nodded, giving me a hug and warning me not to share my newfound secret with my little brother.
Before he reached over and turned off the lamp, he paused and placed his big, rough hand on my heart.
“Santa will always be in here,” he told me. “Don't ever forget that.”
It takes years, I think, to fully realize that. As a boy, I felt smug in the knowledge I'd obtained. Those of us who knew Santa wasn't real used to tease the boys in our class who still believed. I can remember our unmitigated cruelty as Chris, a tall kid in the fifth grade who towered over the rest of us, broke down and wept while we jeered as his innocent belief. We thought him childish. Foolish, perhaps.
Looking back, we were the fools. When you stop believing in Santa Claus, a little bit of the joy goes out of Christmas from that moment on. It ceases to be a time of magic, instead becoming one of commercialism. Kids know Mom and Dad aren't going to fill up their stockings with coal, no matter how bad they've been. Without Santa, adulthood can turn Christmas into a giant headache, juggling job and festivities and shopping and everything else.
But that magic's still there, even if we don't believe. It's in the eyes of the kids who wait in awe and trepidation to sit on Santa's lap at the mall. It's thick and powerful, radiating from the simple belief of a boy's pen as he scrawls a letter to the jolly old elf in big, looping letters. It's in the smile of a little girl who carefully places a plate of cookies, a glass of milk and a carrot for Rudolph by the fireplace.
And sometimes, they have magic left over for the rest of us. I didn’t understand that until I became a father myself, and the wonder of my son, almost breathless as he tries to take in the new toy or bauble left in the living room beside the Christmas tree, was a palpable thing. It radiated from his innocent heart like a furnace, and I realized then and there that when we talk about the “magic” of Christmas, that’s what we mean:
A belief in something greater than ourselves. A force of good and kindness and love and selflessness. A Christ-like figure, if you will, who blesses us with gifts for the simple reason that we’re children. The Lakota people, in fact, refer to children as “wakanyega,” loosely translated as, “the sacred light shines upon them.” Their purity, untainted by the influences of jaded adulthood or hardened by life’s trials and tribulations, makes them special. The magic of Christmas is a celebration of that, in a way, and no matter what life throws at us as we grow older, we never forget that period of innocence when a kind old man with a snow white beard came to our home and doted on us with our heart’s desires.
My father, God rest his soul, was right. Santa still lives in our hearts — all we have to do is give in and believe, to remind ourselves of a time when magic truly existed. Don’t lose sight of that when holiday stress threatens to harden your heart. Happy holidays, friends.