The little girl bounced into American Legion Hall after the annual tree lighting, the huge pompom of her wooly hat falling over one eye. “I just walked over here with Santa and I held his hand the whole way!” Her friends gathered around to hear the details, then pulled her over to the table filled with Christmas cookies.
I thought of how long it had been since I believed in Santa. As a kid with eight brothers and sisters, two years apart or less, there was always an older kid to dissuade a younger one of Santa fantasies. Who brought all those toys then? A pointed look at my parents. We didn’t leave cookies for Santa Claus or listen for the sounds of hooves and sleigh bells on the roof.
Santa wasn’t big at our house; Baby Jesus was.
Our holiday season began at the beginning of December with the ceremonial placement of the small wooden manger inside the Advent wreath that sat on our table. Instead of our parents dangling Santa’s naughty or nice list over our heads, we added a straw if we were good; one was taken out if we were bad. As young children, this incentive worked. The manger, thanks to all of our “good deeds,” would be stuffed with straw come Christmas morning, when the Hummel figure of Baby Jesus arrived to rest on top. Sadly, as we grew older, it didn’t work as well. Baby Jesus would arrive to recline on a bed of two or three straws — not nearly enough to warm his chilly porcelain skin.
We received our stockings on December 6, St. Nicholas Day, instead of Christmas. All nine stockings were lined up under the mantle in the family room, made of red felt, our names embroidered in white yarn — my sister’s handiwork — stuffed with oranges in the toes, walnuts and gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins. To this day, I never figured out the significance of those treats. Candy canes and holy books, too. I still have a picture book of “The First Christmas,” inscribed in handwriting suspiciously like my mother’s: “To Jo from St. Nick.” Funny, we never wondered why my parents didn’t get stockings.
But before we could dump the contents of our stockings, there was a short sock puppet show featuring St. Nicholas and his helper, Black Peter. My father crouched behind the couch, playing both parts. St. Nick spoke with a thick German accent and Peter giggled, as the saint chastised him for not paying attention. Maybe not the most politically correct depiction ever.
On Christmas morning, we got an array of presents: Thumbelina and Fisher-Price Little People, a Madame Alexander doll, an air hockey game, the dreaded clothes. I remember the year my brother got drums. He rattled the windows with his cymbal crash, his bass drum thumping along with Beatles’ tunes.
During the holiday season, the only occupants of the sunroom were my piano, the Christmas tree and my brother’s drum set. I’d play “Twelve Days of Christmas” and he’d accompany me, though we often lost track of the endless verses, rarely ending at a partridge in a pear tree at the same time.
Lit only by the multi-colored tree lights and the snowy dusk outside, we’d play carols together. My parents sat in the nearby living room and listened — the only time I remember them relaxing throughout the entire hectic holiday. Like the Little Drummer Boy, we played our best for them — especially on “O Holy Night,” my father’s favorite. Often, my brothers and sisters would join them, listening quietly on various chairs and couches. It felt like the best present we could give them.
Now at Christmas, my teenage son and I take turns playing Christmas carols on our piano, using a book that my sisters played from almost 40 years ago. On the top of “Silent Night” someone scrawled, “Kevin is a dumbbell.” I don’t remember who wrote it, and though Kevin was not a dumbbell, he will forever remain one in the pages of our piano book.
We didn’t put on a play to celebrate St. Nicholas Day this year, though we did pull out the puppets. Our stockings held a Rolling Stone magazine, fancy dark chocolate bars and homemade scones. We tried to do good deeds without the added incentive of earning straw.
Sometimes I think the point of the season is to try to reclaim that certainty, the sense of magic we had as kids. Whether it’s believing in a tiny baby born in a manger or that one man and his bag of toys could travel the world in a single night. By experiencing moments like a little girl’s thrilling walk with Santa, we can recapture the lost wonder ourselves.
This holiday season, I hope you find some magic. Or that it finds you.