Last week, my monthly women’s writing group met for an early holiday potluck. Before we shared the celebratory meal, we made time to write, first reading an excerpt from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales:
…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night…
Thomas’s words were familiar to everyone in the group, but not everyone would be celebrating Christmas. This year, Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins the evening of December 25th. As Christmas winds down for many of us, others’ holiday traditions are just beginning, the memories of Hanukkah captured in Stephen Schneider’s poem, “Chanukah Lights Tonight:
Our annual prairie Chanukah party—
latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes…
The candles flicker in the window…
The smell of oil is in the air.
We drift off to childhood
where we spent our gelt
on baseball cards and matinees,
cream sodas and potato knishes…
Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out,
waiting for the Messiah to knock,
wanting to know if he can join the party.
(Excerpted from: Prairie Air Show, 2000)
The words of Thomas and Schneider became the inspiration for writing, and for the next half hour, our pens moved quickly across the page. When it came time to read aloud, everyone’s memories were vibrant and laced with the familial traditions so much a part of the holiday season. Mine, which I’ll share briefly with you this week, was of a child’s transition from believing there was, indeed, a Santa Claus, and the niggling fear that perhaps it was all a myth.
It began with a secret shared with me as I hung up my winter coat in the class cloakroom a few weeks before Christmas. Two of my friends approached, pulling me aside to share an important secret. “Guess what,” they announced with smug smiles, “There is no Santa Claus!” Santa, they told me, was made up, not at all real, something for little children and babies, but not for big girls in the third grade like we were. “It’s your mom and dad,” they said, “who buy the presents and put them under the tree.”
I tried to hide my embarrassment as my friends watched my face to see how I reacted. “I know,” I said quietly, but the truth was, I didn’t know until they told me, and even then, I didn’t want to believe them. Now that I look back on it, I wonder how I still believed in Santa in third grade—perhaps because I had a younger sister and a baby brother, and so my parents kept the notion of a real Santa Claus alive for the three of us.
It was that same year that Santa Claus paid a visit in person on Christmas eve. My sister and I had come down with the chicken pox days earlier, and we were house-bound. After dinner, a loud knock and “ho, ho, ho” sounded at the front door. “I wonder who that might be,” my father said, winking at my mother as he opened the door. A rather more slender Santa than I expected entered the living room. “Ho, ho, ho,” he bellowed, as he sat down and took his bag from his shoulder. I stared, momentarily silenced as I remembered what my friends had told me just weeks earlier. Who, I wondered, had come to the house? Santa or someone pretending to be him?
There was a black and white photograph taken that evening, one that remains in my memory: my baby brother was seated on Santa’s knee, my younger sister next to him, smiling, and I sat the farthest from Santa, doubt etched on my face. I was caught between wanting to believe in Santa but wanting to be a big girl who knew better.
The next day, on Christmas morning, I crept out of bed before my parents were awake to see what presents had appeared under the tree. The colored lights had been left on all night, and the living room curtain was open to make them visible to passers-by. I stared out the window and discovered snow had fallen during the night, frosting the streets and sidewalks white. Then I saw him—Santa Claus–his bag empty. He was opening the gate to the house two doors down from ours. A moment later, he disappeared inside. Whether a neighbor in costume or the real thing, it hardly mattered. The possibility of a real Santa lingered in the almost magical moment of Christmas day, snow glistening in the morning light, and a the white bearded, red-suited man with an empty burlap bag slung over his shoulder.
Although I stopped believing in Santa Claus sometime soon afterward, the memory of that particular Christmas stays with me. It was something about what it meant to grow older and be conflicted, not wanting cling to childish beliefs, and yet, wanting to hang on to the idea of Santa Claus just a little longer. How many of us have similar remembrances–when someone told us that there was no Santa Claus–and we didn’t want to believe it, because to do so meant the loss of something we cherished.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.
We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. (From: “Is There a Santa Claus?” The New York Sun, September 21, 1897)
The holidays are filled with family traditions and stories—some shared over and over as the season is celebrated. Write one of yours, whether happy or marked by other emotions.
.Why does this memory stand out for you?
.What insights or reflections do you have as you look back?
. If you once believed in Santa Claus, do you remember when you stopped believing and why?
. Of all the traditions during your holiday celebrations, which do you most look forward to? Why?