As a child, I had a very strong belief in Santa—so strong that when Sister Grace Miriam announced to our 3rd grade class that there was no such thing as Santa I got into trouble telling her just how wrong she was. Looking back it’s amazing that I held on as long as I did, especially considering that the Christmas Eve I was six I awoke around midnight to a lot of loud, un-Santa-like laughter and shouts. My parents had gotten my sister and me a playhouse that year, a sizable one into which several kids could climb. It was made of cardboard and came with the kinds of flaps and inserts that have since made IKEA synonymous with multi-lingual swearing.
Several of the neighbors on our block had ended up in my parents’ living room late that night and had been enlisted to help build the house. The enticement was apparently a pitcher of manhattans. The bourbon cleared their heads enough to get them past the “insert flap A into point M”, but not enough to clarify where they should stand when inserting the flaps and the result was that Mr. S. and Mr. G. ended up inside the playhouse. The door was not big enough to let them crawl out. I believe it took another pitcher to get them out.
I thought of them the year George and I remembered at midnight that we had left the big present—a new television—at his apartment and we had to go out into the freezing cold to retrieve it. This was after hosting a lengthy Christmas Eve dinner party with a lot of champagne. The damn TV was so big that it wouldn’t fit in my car. We drove over to my parents and broke into their station wagon, only to discover that it was out of gas.
We ended up wrestling the TV out of the box in front of the apartment building and trying to shove it in the back seat. I said to him, “I feel as if we’re ripping off an appliance store.” We finally got it home and inside the living room, at which point George had had enough and went up to bed. It was 1:30 in the morning by then, so I pulled a blanket off the couch, threw it over the TV, put a bow on top and followed him upstairs.
In the morning Wally and the Snapper sarcastically said, “Nice wrapping job.” So the following Christmas when we bought them a huge set of free weights, George wrestled it to the front porch and left it with a note saying that union rules wouldn’t permit Santa to carry it in, let alone wrap it.
Anyway, despite surviving the playhouse and Sister Grace Miriam in 3rd grade, I eventually learned the truth, and that Christmas Eve rolled around where I found myself outside the magic for the first time. The rule in our house was that when you stopped believing in Santa, you could stay up and be a Santa’s helper on Christmas Eve.
So I was up helping my parents lay out the many piles of gifts and after a while I wandered into the kitchen, where my grandmother was starting in on Christmas Day dinner for the 30 or so usual suspects. My grandmother was a Hallmark classic—white hair and a soft Irish accent and always cooking in the kitchen. I stood there without saying anything until she finally asked me what was wrong. I said, “It’s just not the same anymore since I don’t believe in Santa.” And she turned away from the stove and said to me, “I still believe.” And then she went back to the turkey. Just like that. No explanations. No deconstructions of the myth. Just, “I still believe.” In that moment she gave all the magic of Christmas back to me.
I think of her every Christmas Eve when I’m caught up in dinner and wrapping and finding enough triple A batteries at eleven at night. I look around at the dishes and the presents and wrapping paper and the lights on the tree and the stockings on the mantel and think, “I still believe.” And I do.
Excerpted from “The Home Fires Are Burning…My Feet!”