As children, Christmas is marketed to us as this sleigh ride through a wonderland of enchantment and awe. The snow-path before us sparkles with mystery: How is Santa going to get my pony down the chimney? There are jingle bells in the distance, a nativity scene starring that baby from Labyrinth, and free sugar cookies—the good kind, with icing and sprinkles, still warm from the oven.
As we get older, though, they start salting the roads. Then one day we realize that our snowy lane has turned into Kingston Pike at rush hour, or worse, the parking lot at West Town Mall.
It’s not surprising that Christmas’ silvery landscape should be so quick to crumble, having been sculpted from fantasy and glitter-glue. But that first stab of disillusionment still feels like an icicle through the heart.
As an 8-year-old, a friend of mine saw Santa take a leak in the men’s room at the mall. He was actually kind of honored to find himself standing at a urinal next to someone so famous. It was only as he watched Santa walk out of the restroom and back to his child-handling duties without washing his hands that his admiration turned to nausea.
Likewise, my younger sister couldn’t wait to see the reindeer on a field trip to the zoo—until some heartless bastard of a zoo tour guide informed her that reindeers do not fly. At that very moment, the story goes, one reindeer lifted its tail and passed gas in her direction.
“It was as if to add an exclamation point to my realization that Christmas as I knew it was dead,” she says.
By the time the tour guide noticed the tears pooling in my sister’s eyes and started to backpedal, making some joke about Santa’s sleigh being powered by reindeer flatulence, it was too late. The magic had evaporated.
Myself, I was always too erudite to get caught up in all that North Pole claptrap. And I was way too sophisticated to let myself get farted on by an animal that looked like a coat rack.
I was a Girl Scout, for God’s sake, a woman of the world. I’d looked out from the top of the Sunsphere, I could recite state capitals in my sleep, I could even speak a little French. In another year or two, hell, I’d be wearing a training bra.
I enjoyed Christmas, but I liked to think it was in a pragmatic, cosmopolitan way. I wanted to stay in control, not to lose myself in the ecstasy of it like my peers. The dirty secrets about Santa and his lot that sent other kids over the edge, I let roll off my back, like penguins sliding down an iceberg into the sea.
But holiday coming-of-age is a universal experience, and I wasn’t immune. I was simply (as any sixth-grade boy at Gresham Middle School could tell you) a late bloomer.
As a kid I lost sleep over a lot of things, but discrepancies between Christmas fact and fiction weren’t among them. It’s like I grew up in a structurally unsound gingerbread house, edges all mashed together, roof sagging beneath the weight of stale gumdrops, candy wrappers littering the lawn. Christmas, let me tell you, was a lawsuit waiting to happen: If Santa had tried to squeeze down my family’s chimney, the whole thing probably would’ve caved in on him.
I learned to wear precocity for the same reason a construction worker wears a hard hat. Was Santa real? I had bigger chestnuts to roast. It wasn’t that I had a bad attitude about the holiday—I just understood, maybe at an earlier age than most, that there was a man behind the curtain, and his last name was Mattel.
It took me years to realize that Santa exists to give a face and a name to the less tangible qualities that exist at Christmas’ core. That he’s just a set of red-and-green training wheels for the belief that there are things in this world that transcend our ability to comprehend them, to write them into formulas or put them into words. The human spirit, if you will.
Having not had Santa to practice on, I struggled for a long while to embrace the magic of the holiday season. To borrow from our opening credits, I just sort of assumed that the powdered-sugar boulevard we as a society were being herded down was a movie set and that the free cookies probably tasted like cardboard.
It didn’t occur to me until much later that, while all this might be true, it doesn’t undermine the authenticity of the holiday itself. The simulacra can’t squash the magic that is everywhere—in the voice of two strangers exchanging a “Merry Christmas” on the street, in the clink of a quarter hitting the bottom of a bell-ringer’s bucket, in the story of a baby that was born on a cold, dark night in Bethlehem long ago
Something funny has been happening to me lately. Maybe my falling-down gingerbread house, with its yellow caution tape and “Do Not Enter” signs, won some kind of Extreme Makeover contest from HGTV and got renovated. Or maybe it got bulldozed, and I just built myself a new house from the ground up.
Whatever the case, the house-warming party has officially begun.
From the outside, it looks like that scene in Home Alone when Macaulay Culkin is trying to foil the robbers by staging a huge party using cardboard cutouts. Inside this house, however, the party guests are real, and I’m the luckiest hostess in the world.
It’s amazing the difference you can make in your life by surrounding yourself with people you love and who love you in return. It gives you something to believe in. For the first time in my life, I’m letting my guard down and allowing the magic in.
It’s like I’m drunk on Christmas. I purchased my first Christmas tree, a handsome Fraser fir. I’ve been watching Christmas movies since mid-November. I’m typing this essay wearing fleecy pajamas with snowflakes on them. I might even go ice skating. The whole thing is enough to make a person throw up a little, if you want to know the truth.
I recently read a story about a zoo in Bloomington, Ill., that has been selling reindeer droppings as Christmas ornaments. In the raw, the turds look like chocolate-covered raisins, but dried out and given a festive paint job they pass for shiny, lumpy beads. Done up with a little ribbon, people love them—last year, the ornaments netted more than $16,000 for the zoo.
I know what my sister is getting for Christmas.