“I know the truth about Santa Claus, Mom. I know the answers now, the real answers,” my twelve year old son said to me solemnly last week, waving a Christmas card featuring the red-cheeked jolly man in his hand.
“You do?” I answered cautiously, treading gingerly into a conversation we had had before, but never to completion. “What do you know now?”
“I know that he isn’t a living person. I know that he once was an old person who lived in a red suit in a previous time, but he doesn’t deliver gifts. He doesn’t fly. He is dead, Mom.”
“How do you feel about that?” I asked, a little shaken by the finality of my son’s words.
“I feel pretty sad about that, although I guess I kind of had an idea before.”
“You did?” I asked, again treading carefully.
“Do you remember when I wanted an original movie version of ‘Clash of the Titans’ as a Lego game for my DSi?”
“I do remember that,” I told him, also remembering my frustration that Christmas season when I realized such a product, though a terrific idea, did not actually exist.
“Well, since Santa Claus can make anything he wants and he didn’t make that for me, I started to wonder just how real he was.”
“When I was a kid though,” I interrupted, “I never thought Santa could make anything. I thought I had to choose from toys that already existed. Toys that were made in the North Pole. I didn’t think that Santa could just wave a wand and make a present. Is that what you thought?”
“Of course, Mom. Remember that chess game Santa Claus gave me when I was eight? It was baseball chess. And I was so into baseball and chess! That’s all I thought about back then! Only a magic Santa could have made that present. I just knew that Santa could make anything when I got that game.”
“Santa or amazon.com,” I thought to myself, biting back a smile.
“But I have a question,” he continued. “Who wrote that letter, the one that Santa gave me with my DSi when I was ten. You know the letter, Mom? It told me all about how I needed to be a good boy and still listen to you and be nice to everybody? Did Santa write that letter?”
I swallowed hard, sensing that all this treading was about to take us into a new realm of reality, as far as Christmas was concerned.
“Do you really want to know?” I asked. This was the same question I had posed two years earlier when my children started asking about Christmas and Santa and the business with sleighs and reindeers. It was an idea I had borrowed from a parenting website. Ask the child if he or she wants to know and then observe the response. It had worked well for me. My then ten year old son, soon to receive a DSi, said, “I do not want to know.” My then seven year old daughter, just a bit more world savvy, immediately said, “I do! I want to know!” And so I had taken her aside and had a heart to heart, but had left my son in the dark, per his request.
This time, it was my son answering in the affirmative. He turned to me, said yes, then grabbed my hand and squeezed it.
“I wrote that letter, buddy,” I said quietly.
“I wondered if you had written it,” he said, his head bowed. “I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t sure. I really did think Santa wrote it though. I decided that he had written it because you looked so surprised. You really did look surprised. You surprised me.”
“It’s hard to grow up, isn’t it?” I whispered. “But can I tell you something kind of neat?”
“It is hard, Mom. You are very right about that.”
“Here’s a cool thing about being a grown up, buddy,” I said. ”Someday you will get to be Santa Claus for your kids. And you will love it! I loved surprising you with that letter and the game. That was one of my favorite Christmases ever, did you know that? Parents and grown ups really love getting to play Santa.”
“That makes sense,” he said, still serious. “It’s like you’re pretending to be the original Saint Nicholas. It’s like you’re keeping that story alive.”
“It’s exactly like that,” I said quietly.
And then we sat on the edge of the bed for a moment without speaking.
“Still, it makes me feel like there’s no magic anywhere,” he said. “There’s no magic left.”
I just nodded.
“Except in the heavens. Thank goodness for magic in the heavens.”
I swallowed again.
Here’s the thing about magic and me. I was well into my thirties before I began to examine some of the magical beliefs I had been clinging to for years. Religious observance can morph into magical thinking in some of us, and I was one of those some. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ‘magical thinking’ until years later. For most of my life, that was just what I considered regular thinking, this Erin-centric view of the universe. I see now that I was superstitious (especially when flying on airplanes) and rather self-centered (when making requests of deity regarding his/her involvement in earthly events). I did not see it then.
Three and a half years ago, I was clinging to particular hoped-for outcome like a barnacle to a sea freighter, and I truly believed God was going to bring about this course of events I was hoping for. I truly believed that until it became clear in a legal sense that my outcome wasn’t going to come out after all. And so I prayed to God and asked for my hope in this event to be taken from me.
And it was.
Unfortunately, the rest of my hope went with it. Like every last drop of it. I hadn’t been as precise in my prayer as I should have been, perhaps.
My hope in a benevolent God, my hope in a loving universe, my hope in happily ever after, and even my hope in myself was gone, like water down a drain. I watched it go until there were just a few wet places remaining, a few drops. And then I was hopeless.
Let me tell you – for someone with my temperament, my particular personality, my squishy way of looking at the world, my specific upbringing and love of poety reading and star gazing, and my predilection for crafting a narrative arc about the events in the world that demands epiphany and redemption with the tidiness of a fiction masterpiece, the way many of us do, that loss of hope was devastating. My desire to work and be productive and useful was slashed. My ability to invest in the future was paralyzed. The magic show was over. The scarves and wires and doves and rabbits were taken off the stage and put away. The curtain closed. The lights dimmed.
The lights dimmed and I sat in the dark. And I think a couple of years went by.
Such a sit was healthy. I don’t mean otherwise. I needed to sit in the darkness. I needed to learn that darkness, to wrap my heart it in, to spend the night in it, to spend some years in it. In the dark, I could see just how prone to delusional thinking I had become, how supersitious my actions had become, how immature and silly my conclusions about the world could be. In the darkness, I learned that I was not the center of the universe. I was nothing more than a tiny pinprick of consciousness and life, and nothing less than that either.
Here I am, at the end of another year. I have learned a great deal about dark – and about light. I more often choose to hope again, to hope for magic in the heavens and magic in my heart. I’ve seen my world with hope stripped away. It is a beautiful place, still, but there is a coldness that chills me. Some likely find that chill to be bracing yet refreshing. Such people do best when they face the world as it really is, see things without the gloss and shimmer of magical thinking. But I am not such people. Perhaps I am more like the people measured in this story, those who when shored up by a sprinkling of magic dust were both more persistent and more visionary about their capabilities. I am a little like Ron Weasley, I think – victorious at Quidditch when I believe I’ve swallowed a dose of Felix Felicis. I know enough about my mind to scrub the delusion away every so often, but not so frequently that I never warm up.
Especially at this time of year, I offer thanks for magic in the heavens and on earth. That magic is like starlight, its beautiful twinkling light just bright enough to cut the despair from the velvet expanse of dark without hiding that darkness from our view.