. . . so that I can believe in Santa.
Do you remember being five years old? I do, a little. In particular, I remember that there is no better time to be five than on Christmas. Well, except maybe Halloween.
At Christmas, when you’re five, everything is magical: The lights on the trees and houses nestled in reflective beds of snow*, filling the night with color. The ornaments on the tree—angels, Santas, snowflakes, and especially the heavy, lead-based tinsel that was so much fun to scatter over the branches by the handful. (They don’t make tinsel like they used to.)
And there’s the food. Stuff you don’t get to eat in normal life. When I was a kid we had delicate Scandinavian cookies that crumbled to powder in small, clumsy hands. Peanut butter blossoms, sugar cookies, gingerbread men that you made yourself, with the yummy egg-white icing you’re afraid to make anymore because of salmonella. (They don’t make eggs like they used to, either.) Eggnog, unnaturally thick and strange, but which I drank anyway because it was a Christmas “treat.“ Mom’s prime rib—the only beef I really liked at that age, mostly because of the Yorkshire pudding that came with it.
And the presents. At our house, Santa brought the bulk of the presents overnight on Christmas Eve. Only presents bought by us kids for each other lived under the tree before that. We’d open them after our Christmas Eve prime rib dinner to play along with my parents’ delusional belief that this would take the edge off of our anticipation. We’d play with those dollar toys and eye the empty tree, thinking of the bigger things tomorrow would bring.
Before bed, I’d always take a last look at the tree, its colored lights and tinsel shining like a beacon to draw Santa to our house. (We placed the tree in a corner, in the angle of perpendicular windows, with the theory that Santa could see it no matter which way he came down the street.) And beneath the tree was a void, waiting to be filled. But Santa wouldn’t come if I was still awake.
I’d crawl under the covers and lay in the dark, wondering: will Santa actually visit our house this year? And how come he always brings the presents from Mom and Dad, too? Do they special order them from the North Pole? And if so, how come the writing on the labels looks like Mom’s? Does she moonlight as an elf, or something? And if so, how does she make the commute?
Restless, I’d lift the window shade, chip off a patch of ice from the glass, and peer into the sky for a glimpse of a red glow that wasn’t a star. Nothing. Will this be the year Santa runs out of time and skips our house?
Christmas morning came earlier than any other morning of the year, though the night seemed eons long. Sometime before 7:00am—not usually before 6:00—one of us kids would wake up and steal into our siblings’ room. Those still a-slumber would wake instantly, one thought in all of our minds: The stockings!
First, a quick look at the tree. Fully loaded! Hallelujah! Santa came! But the presents were as yet untouchable. So we’d sneak downstairs, where our stockings waited on the floor before the fireplace, too heavy to hang from the hooks drilled into the mantel.
Hand-knit by Grandma and big enough for both of my five-year-old legs to fit comfortably, the stockings would be stuffed with goodies. Small toys and books and personal grooming items. Giant oranges and bananas. (One year, a pomegranate—exotic in those days. I had to ask Mom what it was, later. It kept me busy for hours, which was probably the idea.) There were nuts in the shell that we pulverized with a hammer on the tile floor (or sent shooting, unscathed, under my brother’s bed if our aim wasn’t quite on). Foil-wrapped chocolate Santas and chocolate balls. Colorful, spice-flavored hard candy covered with lint from the inside of the stocking. (For some reason, my own kids don’t like this special treat.) Those nummy, chewy peppermints, now hard to find. Giant candy canes that would be left partly eaten on a nightstand, damp and sticky and sucked to a deadly point.
Enough loot to keep us quiet until at least 8:00.
And then breakfast, which seemed to take forever to make and eat. (I love your pancakes, Mom, but really. Today?)
And finally, the presents, which we’d open in turns with ritualistic slowness and exclamation. The books, sweaters, and underwear. The stocking cap with the googly-eyed pom pom that showed up in unexpected places, year after year. And the toys, oh the toys, toys, toys, toys. The doll with the long, pretty black hair. The Strawberry Patch doll that smelled like real artificial strawberries. The stuffed Snoopy that I still keep in a place of honor on my nightstand. (One year, much later, a 20 lb lead brick with a check taped to it to pay for a new car stereo. My parents have a thing for lead, I guess.)
And then it’s over. The Christmas room is a litter of rumpled Christmas paper and foam peanuts, the opened gifts in neat little piles, looking smaller than they ever looked under the tree in their pretty boxes. Dad would sigh with relief and head downstairs to catch whatever bowl game was on. Mom would get to work on the breakfast dishes. My brothers would hole up in their room to play with their new erector set or bundle up for a little sub-zero ice-skating on the pond next-door. And I would grab my giant candy cane and a book and head for my room, feeling a little empty, a little sad, and a little scared of the long, colorless winter ahead.
*I grew up in Minnesota.