I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
-Longfellow, “Christmas Bells”
Christmas morning was filled with the sound of paper tearing. Chaotic, exciting, splendid. I felt like I was in a sea of wrapping paper and new toys. Not a bad place to be for a kid. Just as I thought we were about done with opening gifts, my parents told me there was one more hiding behind the tree.
And sure enough, there it was—a big box all wrapped up. The size alone told me that this would be my favorite present of the year. I tore the paper and piece by piece, unveiled a brand new `13 JVC television with a built-in video cassette recorder. The small white TV still sits in the corner of my room, now practically a young relic awaiting the day it will join the Smithsonian’s American History museum. But back then, I thought it was a modern marvel. A TV AND video cassette player in one?!? This was a real game changer.
I was so happy. How did he know? How could he possibly know that this is what I most wanted? I hadn’t put the TV on my list. My aunt had told me that Santa was struggling that year and didn’t have very much money. Santa’s financial troubles didn’t stop me from writing a list, but it did prevent me from including things I thought were too expensive. The TV had definitely been one of those.
I don’t know how old I was when this happened, yet I look back on that morning fondly. As you can tell, I was big on Santa. I was the kid who defended Santa on the playground, who probably believed in him for a little too long (as 2 certain people like to tease me every year). In addition to my family keeping up the gig for years, I blame this on a combination of my mother’s Santa ornament collection and my childhood friends who believed in him too. After every Christmas break, we swapped stories about Santa sightings, infallible eye witness accounts: “I heard him stomping in my living room!” “I left a carrot for his reindeer, and in the morning, it was half gone!” For me, the presents under the tree that had appeared suddenly overnight were enough evidence. Of course, I had a vague suspicion something was off about Santa. I wondered why every mall had a different Santa Claus. I was always confused about how he got in my house since we did not have a chimney. In those cases, I usually referenced Christmas movies for answers (I’m looking at you, Tim Allen!).
People like to brag that they never believed in Santa. They say it like it’s a badge of honor. Moreover, the internet has plenty of articles debating whether or not parents should propagate the Santa myth. Popular cons include: Santa takes away from the true meaning of Christmas, forces parents to lie to their children (*GASP* Lie to kids; who does that?!), and results in spoiled, entitled children who only care about presents. Worst of all, kids don’t even know it was actually their parents who bought that iPod. The audacity.
In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t a parenting blog, so I’m not here to tell you top 10 reasons
to lie— I mean have Santa be a part of your Christmas traditions. What I will say is that I can’t help but feel a little sorry for those who didn’t believe in Santa. Why?
Because childhood Decembers were magical.
Nothing beat the thrill of Christmas Eve, knowing something wonderful was about to happen. I could barely sleep, but I would force myself for fear that Santa wouldn’t come. In the morning, I’d get goosebumps from seeing the cookie crumbs on the plate, next to an empty glass of milk. Looking at the presents felt even more surreal. For me, these were my impossibles becoming reality. Call it materialistic or what you will, but yeah, as a kid I guess my dreams didn’t go too far past having the latest toy. And yet, there are few times in life when we see our wishes become true, when our dreams become tangible, physical entities.
Believing in Santa Claus taught me to think about a grander narrative. For one night, all was right with the world. I liked to think about how Santa would travel the whole world over, and every child would wake up to a new toy. I did not understand all the mechanics, nor how Santa and his elves managed everything. What I did know was that I was part of a plan much bigger than myself. Flawed and cheesy, and yet, some of that feeling remains. I still believe that I am part of a much grander story, beyond my limited understanding.
I remember as a child, listening to my pastor talk about how Christmas was a very difficult time for some people. I couldn’t fathom how. As an adult, I’m starting to see why. I miss my grandmother, my grandfather, and my aunt. Their absence feels greatest during December, especially my grandmother’s. What I would give to see my grandmother standing on her little stool, stirring a giant pot of menudo… Her death is the most recent. I was stuck in a snow storm in Maine when she passed away, thousands of miles too far. I didn’t get to say goodbye or attend her funeral, so maybe that’s why I sometimes forget she’s really gone. I cried when I went into her house for the first time after her death; somehow, a part of me still expected her to walk out of the kitchen to greet me with a kiss. It’s just as Blair Hurley puts it: “What they don’t tell you about death—or what you don’t really understand until it happens close to you—is how permanent it is.”
“What they don’t tell you about death—or what you don’t really understand until it happens close to you—is how permanent it is. In the months afterward I kept thinking to myself, all right, I get it. This is too painful. Let’s just take a little break from the loss. Let’s have a weekend off. A day. Or an hour. Just one hour when it’s not true, when she is allowed to speak to me, or to rub an absent-minded hand through my hair. But the wall is high and fissureless. There are no breaks, no time-outs. The loss is final, and the you that you were with her is nowhere, gone.”
-Blair Hurley in “My Mother is Gone, but Her Edits Remain: On Grief, Writing, and Jhumpa Lahiri”
The sorrow worsens when I realize my list of people will only get longer as I grow older.
Life changes. The lights dim, the music becomes noise, and the magic disappears. You can’t believe in Santa forever. Trust me, I tried.
I wrote an essay called “Of Peace on Earth” about 6 years ago on the stark difference between society’s ideal image of Christmas versus the reality. At the time, I was going through some difficult transitions. The holidays didn’t feel jolly. I was disappointed, envious, and somewhat angry. As I felt the world taunting me, I heard the bells: “Longfellow’s bells [rang] loud and deep into the disparity of truth and lie, their sweet song luring me in.”
Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” is one of my favorites. Written during the Civil War, the narrator comes to terms with loss and a war that “mocks the song of peace on earth.” The cannons drown out the carols, and prospects of peace seem forlorn. Just as the narrator sinks into despair, he hears the Christmas bells:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Christmas Bells”
In my essay, I discuss how Longfellow’s bells ultimately point me back to Christ. “When the pompous fluff and glitter of the season are taken away,” I find myself “following the shepherds to Bethlehem to worship the King.” (I’d post a link to the original essay, but my overuse of adjectives might blind you.)
To a certain degree, my days as a Santa Claus believer remind me of Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”. Those happy memories stand in contrast to a broken world that so often disappoints me. When I feel overcome with grief—not just for my loved ones, but also for the state of the world—those memories remind me that I have much to be thankful for and that I have much to give.
Let me explain.
Finding out Santa isn’t real can be devastating for a child. People sometimes cite the moment as the first time they faced real disillusionment with the world (cf. Miracle on 34th Street or any adult in a Santa movie). That sounds a little dramatic to me, but then again, I am quoting movie characters. Anyways, I don’t remember when I stopped believing in Santa. I feel like I eventually figured it out on my own, and so when my parents finally told me, I wasn’t heartbroken.
Instead, as I have grown older, I have developed a real appreciation for my parents and their effort to make my Christmases magical. For years, they unselfishly gave without me ever knowing. I didn’t even thank them. I thanked some old white guy I met a few times at the mall. Part of growing up is realizing how much of yourself you owe to other people. My Santa days are a testament to my family, who were the real force behind the magic. Santa may not be real, but my parents embodied the spirit of selfless giving. I feel deeply loved, not deceived.
I guess I’m a little proud that I once believed in Santa. A happy memory goes a long way in terms of hope, and I am lucky to be rich in happy memories. I am reminded that whatever obstacles lie ahead, there are hidden blessings I’ve overlooked. For example, I never thought twice about why it was always my parents who chose the cookies I left out for Santa…
“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
-Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas