The tree lights flashed in our darkened living room that Christmas Eve night, creating transient shadows on the walls. The only noise outside the hum, like gentle snoring, from various appliances was the creak-crack-creak from the rocking recliner I had vacated.
A moment after I left the rocker, my husband settled into it, and we 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 and said, “Oh, it’s you, Papa.”
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 is now a 6-foot-1-inch, 18-year-old man with college plans, a job, and more responsibilities than he’d care to count.
He believed in Santa until fifth grade, and his three siblings have all believed in Santa longer than usual, too.
Such belief started with their dad’s family. Belief in Santa sounds impossible for five rambunctious boys, but it was the official policy of those powers that be (my husband’s mom and dad) that gifts came from Santa Claus and no other. Gift tags bore his neat signature to bolster faith. Presents were beautifully wrapped by meticulous (and, considering the gifts were free for the asking, no doubt underpaid) elves.
In my childhood home, Santa was not promoted. It wasn’t practical. This does not mean that Santa was absent. My parents were Santa and Mrs. Claus the year they let me keep my Heart Family doll set even though when asked, I sweated, pointed, and accused the cats of ripping open the wrapping paper for a peek. And Mr. Wellins, the hard-working farmer from down the road, left a huge box filled with nuts, fruit, and candy on our doorstep every December. Mr. Owens, the school bus driver, gave king-sized chocolate bars to all the kids before Christmas vacation. And wonderful firemen and police officers took my siblings and me and other kids from poor families shopping many years around Christmas to fulfill our wish lists.
When my husband and I had our children, I wanted to weave holiday magic to honor my husband’s tradition and those myriad Santas of my childhood. With my writer’s imagination, I spun intricate tales, fleshing out the legend.
I didn’t realize the hard work it entailed to keep the magic alive, hoofing it all over town, hiding online orders, dodging, sneaking, or speaking in code with my husband to make sure St. Nick wasn’t caught. I did not foresee bouts of indecision and the anxiety or regret when Santa could or would not cross off the most expensive or impractical items on my kids’ lists.
Exhausted, I often considered letting the legend fade away like smoke from a chimney.
But in my youngest child’s eyes, the light is still there. So I speak about St. Nick with the persistent belief of a little Virginia, of how I heard sleigh bells one fateful Christmas Eve when I stayed up ungodly late to finish my daughter’s stocking (woefully crooked), of how St. Nick can get into our house without a chimney, of how my youngest daughter may someday turn into an elf. (She polished off Santa’s half-eaten cookie, obviously ingesting magical germs.)
For the past two years I’ve agonized over whether or not to tell my youngest daughter. But when tears flooded her eyes at the thought of Santa not being real, I faltered. Abandoning the magic and innocence of childhood saddened her.
“Don’t stop believing in something that brings you joy,” I told her. “I’m an adult, and I believe in Santa.”
Though I’ve dug a hole in the North Pole tundra for myself, shoveling snow with reckless abandon, I wasn’t lying to her.
As crazy as it is, I believe. I believe in the selfless St. Nicholas from several hundred years ago. I believe in the generous Santas of my childhood. I believe in the Santa in you and me who helps the less fortunate with renewed vigor and gladness at Christmastime. I believe in believing while knowing who does the work and spends the hard-earned money. Who wants cold, hard facts anyway?
I love the closing scene in The Polar Express when the main character rings the sleigh bell Santa returned to him on Christmas morning. His parents cannot hear it—they no longer believe. The year comes when even his younger sister no longer hears the bell. Then he says, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me.”
I cry every time.
May the bell ring for all of us, sweetly and clearly, this year and for many years to come.
Originally published on the author’s blog