The living room was mostly dark that night. No overhead lamps, but the Christmas tree lights were flashing, creating transient shadows on the walls. The only noise outside the hum, like gentle snoring, from various appliances was the quick succession of creak-crack-creak from the rocking recliner I had just vacated.
A moment after I left the rocker, my husband settled into it, and we soon heard the stealthy padding of tiny feet in the hall. We watched, waited and around the corner crept a wide-eyed toddler. He turned his head, saw who was sitting in the chair, said "oh, it's you, Papa" , and then his face fell, his body relaxed and a mixture of disappointment and relief played across his features. He obviously thought he had caught Santa and was excited by and yet fearful of the encounter with that strange, jolly old elf.
That toddler has since grown to be a nine-year-old boy who plays flag football, rags his younger sister constantly, makes great grades in school, and is obsessed with Harry Potter. He still believes in Santa. I blame myself for that. Mostly.
Technically, it all started with his dad's upbringing. His dad was raised in a household where even when a belief in Santa should have been impossible for the five boys under its roof, it was the official policy of those powers that be (mom and dad) that gifts came from Santa Claus and no other. Gift tags bore his neat signature to bolster faith, and the presents were beautifully wrapped as if by meticulous (and, considering the gifts are free for the asking, no doubt underpaid) elves. Even when my husband returned to his parents with a wife and children in tow, his parents hovered as he and I watched TV late Christmas Eve night, waiting to give Santa the all-clear when we finally gave up on watching A Christmas Story for the third time on TNT and went to bed. We were oblivious until they became too tired to wait any longer and decided to cart Santa's gifts out in plain sight from where they were conveniently and suspiciously stowed in the master closet.
As for me, Santa was not promoted in my childhood home. It wasn't practical. This does not mean, of course, that there were no Santas in our lives at Christmas. My parents were very generous Santas the year they let me keep the much-desired Heart Family doll set, even though, when asked, I sweated and pointed at the cats, lying that they had ripped open the wrapping paper prematurely, not me. There was Mr. Wellins, the hard-working farmer from down the road, who never failed to leave a box filled with nuts, fruit and candy on our doorstep on a cold afternoon in December. There was Mr. Owens, the bus driver, who handed out king-sized chocolate bars to all the kids on his route. And there was the tall lanky fireman who showed up in our drive on Christmas Eve when I was eight or nine. At the end of a hard year for our family, he miraculously brought with him everything from our Christmas wish list that hung on our basement door. Instead of a fur cap, he wore a cowboy hat. He was a young, thin man but the closest thing to Santa I've ever known.
So I thought it would be fun to BELIEVE, to imagine, to weave a little holiday magic for my own children to honor my husband's tradition and all those Santas of my childhood. I didn't know it'd be hard work, that I would foot it all over town, make a dozen phone calls, dodge, sneak or speak in elaborate code with my husband just to make sure St. Nick fulfilled his quota of Christmas wishes. I didn't contemplate beforehand how I might, with my overactive imagination, weave and spin prolific lies to cover for Santa and his flighty reindeer's inconsistencies. I didn't foresee my anxiety or regret when Santa could not or would not cross off the most expensive or impractical items on my kids' lists.
I'm exhausted of the tale sometimes, but I've looked in my older children's eyes, and the light is still there. I can't extinguish it, so I build the legend, speaking about St. Nick with the persistent belief of a little Virginia. It keeps me young. Still, each time I tell again how I heard his sleigh bells on the fateful Christmas Eve when I stayed up ungodly late to finish my daughter's stocking (which turned out freakishly crooked and funky looking), speculate with my kids on just how St. Nick gets into our house without a chimney, debate whether this year's mall Santa is the real one, or laugh with my older kids over the idea that their sister will turn into an elf at the age of 21 (she polished off the half-eaten cookie Santa left behind last year, and therefore must have ingested magical germs that will someday point her ears in abnormal fashion), I'm digging a broader hole, throwing shovelfuls of snow over my head with reckless abandon as I sink deeper in the magical mire.
Why do I do it? There's no doubt that I like a good story and love the power of imagination. But, well, as crazy as it surely is, I believe. I believe in the Santa in me and you and in the Saint Nicholas of a few hundred years ago. I believe in believing even though I know who really does all the work and spends the hard-earned money.
Why I do it can best be summed up by my favorite line at the end of one of my favorite holiday movies. At the close of The Polar Express, the little boy sits on the floor with his little sister on Christmas morning, ringing the sleigh bell Santa returned to him. His parents can't hear its pretty tinkle, because they no longer believe. Eventually, as the boy points out, the time comes when even his younger sister can no longer hear the bell. Then he pronounces the line that, for years, made me cry each and every time, "Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me."
That's what I want - that childlike spirit. I want it for my nine-year-old boy who swears Santa woke him up at midnight a couple years ago (and who then proceeded to wake up his mom and dad at midnight before spending two hours crying because we wouldn't let him go out to the tree). I want it for my daughters and for my toddler son. For my husband, too, whose parents kept it alive so long. I'll do my part to spread the joy. I hope the bell may ring long and clear for all of us.