My Christmas eves and Christmas mornings growing up had a distinct lack of dressed up Christmas trees and stockings, much less half-eaten cookies and empty milk glasses, or complex mythologies about how Santa broke into the house despite our lack of a chimney. For a period of years, Heather’s were all about such wonder. Waiting to catch a glimpse of a silhouetted sleigh passing the moon. Listening to her father simulate the sound of reindeer hoofs outside.
My sister swears that, in a flight of fancy one year (a year I was too young to recall), the two of us tried to believe in Santa and reject our parents’ pragmatic insistence on all of the reasons why a man traveling the globe in one night, pulled by flying reindeer was impossible. One year (I like to imagine the same one) Heather and her siblings caught word there wasn’t a Santa and told all of the kids in the neighborhood. Their parents told them that if they didn’t believe in Santa and were going to ruin the idea for a dozen other kids, then Santa really wouldn’t bring them anything that year, and promptly returned or resold their presents.
In the aftermath of the Santa Claus years--after which point it was no longer a faux-paz to discuss Santa as fantasy among age peers, and there was no longer any fun in spoiling it for younger people, Saint Nick became a part of the background scenery. He had little more potency than a Frosty the Snowman or any other subject of decorations and Christmas carols. But as the years passed, I clung to certain Christmas traditions--the annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life and Scrooged, listening to “(Happy Xmas) War Is Over” and various renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I split time between family and friends and girlfriends’ families and took to hosting an annual Christmas party in my Baltimore apartment that was in no way sized appropriately for the number of people in attendance. Through it all, each Christmas day I awoke on the street I'd grown up on--Graham Ave, either in my childhood home, or my second home, on the opposite end of the street, where my best friend grew up. The holiday evolved and I spent a high proportion of it enjoying the company of my de facto nieces--playing tag, building Lego towers, and making stuffed animals talk with funny voices.
For all the Christmases that she, too, spent at home, Heather settled into the absence of tradition, foregoing expensive, crowded flights and bouncing between relatives’ couches in favor of staying on the west coast. She watched movies with friends. She attended a Jewish ball.
Our Christmas stories are different in many ways and didn’t converge for over thirty years. Nonetheless I’d suggest that if you could reduce our holiday stories--and those of plenty more people I’ve come across in my lifetime--to a common theme, it would be trying to recapture magic. The magic of a bearded old man in a red suit, or of an even more abstract concept of the magic of spending time with relatives who have gone separate ways or passed on since we were kids. The magic of waiting on what Christmas gifts await us, or even that simple magic of what it was like the first time we heard our favorite Christmas songs, saw our favorite Christmas movies, or had our first bites of our favorite Christmas cookies. We chase these sensations in trying on Santa’s clothes ourselves, in the gift giving, in being the ones to cook Christmas dinner.
This spirit of waiting and wishing threatens to overtake our lives. The drive to recreate based on nostalgia, balanced with pursuit of our own dreams, evolved and sharpened from childhood. That sense that each of us might still become the very best versions of ourselves, if just for one day of the year, when we attain some semblance of a Christmas miracle, or at least achieve our best approximation of a perfect holiday.
My friend Ben--older, wiser, and a father years before I was--once summarized the three stages of life as believing in Santa Claus, not believing in Santa Claus, and becoming Santa Claus. I suspect he was right. Just the same, I like to think that that first stage is one that goes on longer than many of us give it credit for. That at the age of 34, I may still be waiting for Santa Claus on some level, to bring me the things I can’t buy or will into being on my own—a lucrative publishing deal, or more time with my the family and friends I’ve moved far away from.
And as long as I have those hopes, those dreams, those ambitions, and--perhaps most importantly--faith, then I suppose I’ll always believe in a Santa Claus whom I never thought existed.
I’ll keep waiting.