“Why does that sign say, ‘Believe!’?” my son asks.
He’s spotted an ad while we’re waiting for the brown line. Fat flakes of the first real snow in Chicago float down around us. Christmas is definitely in the air.
“Believe in what?”
I’m not in the habit of lying to my kids, and while I am guilty of errors of hyperbole from time to time (OK, gum will not make your teeth fall out of your mouth immediately) I do try to answer their questions directly. But this is a tough one.
I know the non-believers in the second grade have begun to whisper their doubts. Like a virus it spreads, making kids question fundamental symbols of the season.
But I want my sons to believe.
Christmas enthusiasm runs in my family. My dad was a huge fan of holidays, and Christmas was his Super Bowl. He covered our mantle and porch with flaming red poinsettias. He prepped and planned the holiday feasts for weeks. He loved to spoil my brother, sisters, and me but most especially he loved selecting just the right present for our mom. The gifts he chose were thoughtful, funny, romantic, and sweet, like both of them.
Dad also had a favorite trick. After “all” the presents were opened and we sat in the middle of the wrapping paper chaos, he’d quietly sneak out of the room. Upon his return, he’d announce that Santa must have made a mistake, and had left a “few other things” hidden strategically elsewhere in the house. These gifts were usually something particularly significant, a last burst of Christmas cheer. I remember one year getting a camera with his well-worn strap on it, something I still treasure.
I carry on his seasonal enthusiasm with my own family. We put up lights on our house and decorate the tree with too many ornaments. Our stockings are hung and garland winds up the staircase. I play Christmas music everywhere.
Bubbles, our Elf On the Shelf, arrives in early December. We make lists for Santa and mail them off, make a special trip downtown to see him and count down the days until his arrival. We cuddle up and repeatedly watch Frosty and Rudolph in their Rankin & Bass animated glory. We drink hot chocolate and brave the Santa Train on the CTA while gorging on candy canes.
We try to keep the actual gifts to a reasonable level, but just as when I was a girl, Santa usually “forgets” something special and rings the doorbell part way through Christmas morning. My sons squeal with delight. “I knew he would do that!” my older son cries, racing his brother to the door. Miraculously, there are two more gifts out there in the cold with big tags reading ‘From Santa,’ extending the joy a few more minutes.
I’m not ready to see it end, Christmas morning, or ever.
I know much of what we do seems old-fashioned, maybe even kitschy. I don’t care. The rest of the year there’s so much inescapable reality. Kids are pressured to play less and be more focused earlier and earlier. They are tested and ranked constantly and the pressure is enormous. Games and television, even programs meant for kids, seem to promote fighting and conflict. You need not look further than the daily news for events that leave adults shaking their head in despair.
Also, I think my holiday hullabaloo is part of a yearning for the lost and lovely art of anticipation. Modern kids (and adults for that matter) wait for nothing. Movies and music are available instantly, whereas we waited months to watch The Grinch on TV and if you missed it, well, see you next year. But for Christmas, we all have to wait. The anticipation is delicious and can’t be rushed or fast-forwarded through, for a change.
So for a month or so, we are all about the magic. Food and drink is a little richer. Hugs last a little longer. Our home and our lives are transported, if only temporarily, to a time when we believed a single person (and a merry elf labor force) could make all the presents for the children of the world in a year, and then deliver them in one night. If that can happen, then anything ispossible.
That advertisement, ironically, seems to incite more doubt than belief. You don’t question something when you already believe.
When you stop believing, I think a little part of you stops dreaming quite as big.
“Magic,” I tell him. “It’s the season of magic and they wanted you to remember that.”
“Of course,” he says. “Everyone knows magic is real.”
And we don’t need a sign to tell us that.
This essay also appeared in Fete Lifestyle Magazine in December, 2018.