Over this last weekend, Brian and I gathered our children around us for that great Christmas tradition: decorating the tree.
It went pretty much like it always does. There was laughter, and lots of “oohs” and “aahs” as we unwrapped treasured ornaments from years past. The lights were in a snarl, and one string wouldn’t work, necessitating a quick run to the store for a new strand. The kids argued over who got to put the star on top and there was a brisk debate over whether we should use the strand of pearls or the wooden beads this year. (We ended up using both.) Christmas music played low in the background while the cat tried to knock the ornaments off the tree even as we were still hanging them. There was plenty of bickering, and the kids consumed far too many candy canes when we weren’t paying attention. But at last we finished the job, and when we sat down in the darkened living room to bask in the glow of the lights on the tree, we all had smiles on our faces.
It was beautiful.
It always is, isn’t it? Virginia declared it our “best tree ever.” She did mention, however, that the tree did not seem quite as tall as she remembered. We’ve used the same artificial tree most of her life, so it’s not that the tree is smaller — it’s that she is growing. It’s yet another reminder of the passage of time, and another reason (as if I needed one) to pay closer attention to these fleeting days of childhood.
This is our first year without Santa Claus. Oh, we’ll always be a family that believes in the magic of Santa, a family that believes “he exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist” (Editorial Page, New York Sun 1897) – but this is the first year where he is no longer expected in a present and tangible way. Virginia is no longer writing letters to the North Pole. Now her heart’s desires are sent directly to me, carefully detailed lists that she posts on the refrigerator.
It’s not nearly as much fun.
Santa Claus has been expected to arrive at my house every Christmas for the last twenty four years. I used to tease my oldest son, Elias, telling him I would be staying up after he went to bed to speak with Santa about his behavior over the past year, and perhaps to steal a kiss from the Jolly Old Elf under the mistletoe. He, in turn, would give me a serious lecture about leaving Santa alone so he could get his work done, and as for kisses? Well, Santa is married Mom, so you better just leave him alone.
Liam was an admirer of St. Nicholas — in an abstract sense, at least. He never enjoyed visiting Santa, but he always asked to do so anyway. He was afraid, I think, he wouldn’t get his requests honored unless he made a personal visit. He would stand in line, his back ramrod straight, as he mentally prepared himself for his turn on Santa’s lap. The other children around him would be jumping for excitement and pushing to be next, and in the midst of it all, there would be Liam, his face set with grim determination. He never skipped a year, even though he seemed to enjoy it less than a visit to the dentist!
As for Virginia? Well, she grew up hearing Yes, Virginia There Is a Santa Claus, and believing it to be a letter speaking directly to her. She left cookies for Santa, and carrots for his reindeer. She wrote him letters every year – once even in the middle of summer – not only to ask for toys, but also to inquire into his well being and to ask for the North Pole weather report. Amazingly, she received a timely reply to every letter! (I still do not know who answered those letters…)
So this year will be different. Not bad, not worse…but different. The tree is “smaller” and Santa Claus, well, he’s real but not REAL.
Or is he? I don’t know how to explain it, but I have a feeling he might manage to visit our home after all. I feel like he’s the sort of fellow that finds a way to make his presence known — I don’t think he’s put off by skepticism or common sense or any other grown up ideas about life.
Yes, something tells me Santa Claus might have a few surprises in store for all of us…