Earlier this month, I overheard my kids at the bottom of the stairs whispering about Santa. “Let’s stay up all night on Christmas Eve,” I heard Lily say. “Then we’ll see if he’s real.” Josh agreed, and the two of them concocted a plan – they’d stay up in shifts, promising that if Santa showed up they’d wake the other one.
I stood in the hall upstairs and stuffed down a snort. Lily had already been no-so-subtly asking whether Adam and I are actually Santa Claus. “I know the parents really buy the gifts,” she said at the breakfast table one day. She waited for my response, and when I didn’t give her one, she pressed me: “Right, Mom?”
I told her the same thing I was told when I was a girl – that Santa is Christmas magic and if you believe in Christmas magic, you also believe in Santa. It was what my mother said to me when I was a similar age and starting to piece together the truth about Santa. My mother never disguised her handwriting or used special wrapping paper only for Santa, so it wasn’t hard to figure out.
But I never cared. Christmas was magical, and Santa was part of it whether he was real or not. It was true then, and it’s true now.
Less than a week after I overheard the kids’ conversation, I was in bed with the flu. It was early December, and all I cared about was lying in bed with my eyes closed. I was exhausted in a way that might only rival the fatigue of giving birth, only I had no baby to keep me awake.
For ten days, I got up in the morning to sit with my kids during breakfast, then went right back to bed when they got on the bus. Adam made chicken soup from scratch, and it and an endless supply of clementines sustained me. I watched three seasons of The Office (most of it with my eyes closed, conscious or not), last year’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, The Holiday with Cameron Diaz and Jude Law, and Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell, which left me thinking a lot about family, story, and how we handle the truth.
I was in the middle of reading Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, but could barely concentrate on the words once the flu hit with full force. My headache rivaled what I can only imagine a migraine feels like – my eyes like darts in my head and a strong sensitivity to light. I’d read a few pages, then put the book down in favor of TV. Even then, I mostly kept my eyes closed.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, we traipsed to the tree farm to cut down our Christmas tree. I felt better, but could barely walk a minute or two without needing to stop. It’s the first year since we moved back to New York that we looked for a tree after a snowfall, all the trees covered with snowy sugar, beautiful but nearly impossible to tell what was under all that snow. We picked a tree that ended up being too short with bottom branches that were scraggly and uneven. But I didn’t have the energy to care. The next day, Adam put up the tree and helped the kids hang ornaments while I laid on the couch dozing.
It didn’t feel like Christmas. I couldn’t feel the magic.
I read once that there’s no reason for parents to work so hard to make childhood magical –childhood is inherently magical. It is filled with wonder and mystery. Parents don’t have to create that magic. What a relief.
Every morning, Lily came out of her room and reported how many days until Christmas: nine more days, then eight, then seven. I decided, even as I felt better, that I was going to do as little as possible for Christmas. Adam and I ordered gifts from Amazon and bought more gift cards than ever before. It was the first year we didn’t send out Christmas cards or make cutout cookies. We didn’t go into town for the tree lighting or drive around looking at Christmas lights.
All we did, all we could do, was count down the days until Christmas. Six, five, four.
One morning, a few days before Christmas, I was finally starting to feel better, the fog clearing a bit. My ears were still plugged, leaving me unable to hear much of anything, but I turned on the Pandora Christmas station I’ve spent years curating. I needed to hear those songs.
Sufjan Stevens’ “Holy Holy Holy” was first, starting just as I poured myself a second cup of coffee. I stopped for a minute and took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and listened. How many times have I heard this song, this version with its soft piano? How many times has it brought me to tears? I can’t count them all.
But standing in the kitchen on an ordinary day in December – three more days, then two, then one – having missed half the month lying in bed, without Santa or any fanfare, I could feel it. The feeling slipped by, fleeting as the song came to a close. But finally, here was the magic I’d been missing. I didn’t have to create it. What a relief.