I still believe.
It’s over 40 years later, and I still believe in the magic of Christmas.
I was not raised believing in Santa Claus. From some recent comments I read online, apparently this should translate into me feeling I was deprived as a child, robbed of the magical spirit of Christmas and decrying my parents for their treachery in not allowing me this belief. And yet Christmas is my favourite holiday, and every year I feel the same sense of awe and wonder I did as a child.
And it has nothing to do with Santa.
My parents, being German-Canadian, celebrated Christmas on December 24. Christmas Eve was a night that began with a huge traditional family meal, followed by carols, the reading of the story of Jesus’ birth, the opening of gifts and then a trek to midnight mass, followed by yet another small meal (did I mention the German part?).
December 25 was a day spent with family and friends, eating, visiting, playing cards and games, reading books and enjoying the simple pleasures of the day. There were no reindeer hoofprints, no fat men in red suits, no chimneys, and on my part no sense of disappointment because for me Santa was just a lovely story.
And while my family was Catholic we were not what I would consider incredibly devout, so that wasn’t the reason for the absence of Santa. It had more to do with how my parents were raised, and their parents before them.
Christmas gifts came from the people around you, who may have scrimped and saved to deliver them. They likely agonized over the perfect gifts, and they were the ones who wrapped them and placed them under the tree. If anything, knowing this made them all the more special, because the gifts I received were directly from those I loved.
I guess there are those who think the magic of Christmas is only found for children within the magic of Santa, the excitement and the anticipation; and yet for me the magic was in my family.
- The Christmas dinner my mother lovingly prepared, far more food than any family could ever consume in one sitting and leading to the necessity of two fridges in their home to hold leftovers alone.
- The way my father would always find the homeliest, saddest and most misshapen tree on the Christmas tree lot and bring it home, introducing me to the concept of the Charlie Brown tree long before television did
- How my dad would pull out his accordion, a massive black and silver beast that so very few people can master, and begin to play carols.
- The sounds of my parents’ voices as they sung Silent Night, not in English but in their native German, the language that had both spoken until they went to school as children.
- The bowls of mandarin oranges that would be passed around several times, leading to orange over-consumption and no interest in that particular fruit for the rest of the year.
- The way my parents welcomed in “strays” – people who had nowhere to go for Christmas, far from friends and family of their own. This is actually how I learned about multicultural diversity, as our guests could be from anywhere in the world, but our home was their home at Christmas.
- Doing the dishes – by hand! – after that massive meal before we could get to the presents, leading to everyone helping as it made the work go so much faster and the presents arrive sooner.
- Midnight mass, the one time of year when going to church actually seemed beautiful to me and when it reflected the peace, joy and love of the season.
And yes, the presents.
As I reflected recently on those childhood Christmases I recalled the year I found a large box under the tree. I must have been around 7, and in that box was a toy that would entertain not only me but entire future generations of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
My Fisher Price Play Family Castle was not from Santa. It was from my dad, with his rough and worn working hands, and my mom, who often was found with a bit of flour on her face from baking bread for her family. This gift and those Christmases burn brightly in my memory not because of Santa, and not because of a lack of magic, but because my parents were the true embodiment of the season: kindness, joy, peace, love and family.
The singing of Silent Night in German still makes me weep, especially since it has been almost a decade since either of my parents were alive to sing it.
Mandarin oranges still make me smile, and I can still eat a dozen in one sitting.
I have an inordinate fondness for real Christmas trees that are far from perfect specimens, and I still own my dad’s accordion, even though I cannot play it and just take it out once in a while to touch the smooth keys.
Sometimes, even though I am far from religious, I still go to midnight mass and let the feelings of peace wash over me.
And this year I went online and found a vintage 1974 Fisher Price Play Family Castle, which is now on its way to me as a reminder of all those Christmases so long ago.
It may seem an unusual nativity scene, and yet I know it is destined to become part of my Christmas decorating tradition, taking me back to my childhood and a time that lives on forever in my memory, but mostly in my heart.
Because that is where the magic truly is; deep in my heart and intertwined with memories of my mother, my father and Christmases long past.