Who says Christmas is for children?
“Children see magic because they look for it.” — Christopher Moore, writer
T he gap between the bottom of my bedroom door and the floor was wide enough to see the rolls of wrapping paper spread out across the floor in the television room. Even with the door closed, my bedroom had a perfect view of all the happenings in the basement of the house. The hour was late the Christmas Eve of 1985. All of the little ones were supposedly tucked in our wee little beds. All but one.
This was our first Christmas with Rocky Mountain snow. Grandma lived twenty minutes away now, not two states away. Despite Grandpa’s feast or famine construction business, and limited resources, for dozens of very young grandkids she always made Christmas feel like magic, complete with popcorn balls and special sandwich bags filled with cookies and candy with our names written on a tag. She did this until she died in her 90’s with over one hundred grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That’s pretty strong magic. Mom grew up one of the oldest of eight kids, and learned from Grandma how to make Christmas magical with very little. As a result, every Christmas was a double dose of holiday fun. It was all-American, like a festive picture right out of Norman Rockwell’s studio.
And then there was the Christmas of 1985.
T hat year, at the age of ten, I had a few niggling doubts about the magic of Christmas. My wisdom had developed, and I no longer believed in the Easter Bunny. I still hoped he was real, but no longer believed. Rumors in my school class about the authenticity of the Santa story had me worried. Santa needed to be vetted.
Through the gap under my bedroom door, I saw Mom sitting on the floor, wrapping packages in mysterious wrapping paper that I hadn’t seen when she and I wrapped family gifts for my little siblings. Rolls full of paper with cartoon drawings of Santa Clause, Christmas plaid, and a solid royal blue were spread out to be cut to size and wrapped around various items.
I was too old for the gifts I saw, and some gifts were difficult to discern as to their identity. We didn’t have much money. Dad had recently moved us to the Salt Lake City, Utah area from Sacramento, California, and invested a lot of what we had in his new business. We had enough, but frugality was key, and my mother administrated the family’s expenses with supportive grace and poise. I did not understand how she found the money for many things that we did, especially for buying gifts. It was part of her magic.
D ad came downstairs and joined her in her wrapping adventure. Even though he spent a lot of time at the office growing his new business, Mom and Dad always had a bond so strong that my siblings and I were allowed to feel secure. That still feels magical. Mom was the first person Dad went to when he came home. They were always affectionate and warm with each other. I’m sure like most marriages, they had rocky patches, but we never saw it. They consistently exhibited respect and consideration for each other, even when they disagreed on a matter. I am four-and-something decades into this life business, and I still don’t know what it is like to see my parents yell at each other, or say disrespectful things about each other. They resolved conflicts peacefully and usually behind closed doors. Forty-eight years of marriage hasn’t changed them one bit. They’re still adorable together. It is easier to believe in magic than a modern marriage like theirs. I get it. But the magic of their relationship is very real.
Back to 1985. Do you have literary whiplash yet?
T he next thing that happened was like unto a meteor hitting the Earth and initiating the end of the dinosaurs. It was the end of Christmas magic as it had been since I could remember.
Amid ribbon curling and paper cutting I heard them wonder out loud if we would like the gifts.
“Alisa still believes in Santa, right?” My dad asked.
“Yes.” Mom answered.
“Do you think we should tell her?” He chuckled.
Mom paused a moment.
“No. This is probably her last year of believing in Santa. Let her enjoy it.”
Anxiety spread through my body from the pit of my gut. What in the Sam Hill was going on?!?
“Alright,” Dad replied. “Shall I fill the stockings?”
“Sure.” Mom said, gently tossing a grocery bag full of candy at the ground in front of him. A package of small Snickers bars slid out. Those were my favorite candy. Santa knew that and brought them every year.
Mom opened a pen and asked,”Do you want to make the Santa tags?” She waited a moment and said, “Wait. You should do it, they see my handwriting all the time. They’ll know it’s me.”
Horror and agony filled my soul as I stood in the rubble of a shattered parental pedestal upon which I had placed these two Christmas frauds for the entirety of my decade of existence. The mighty had fallen.
My tenth year had already been tough. Moving from California to Utah was a cultural and seasonal shock. We loved the snow, but not the bone-chilling cold. Making friends had proven difficult, so I buried myself in books. I had just read The Girl with the Silver Eyes before the new school year started. I believed that with diligent practice that I would be able to master telekinesis and impress my new classmates. To my great disappointment, I learned that telekinesis was not a real thing. Despite my older sister’s insistence that it was fantasy, my heart still hoped but no longer believed. The magic was gone. Now this? It was too much to bear! Stunned, I climbed into bed, numbed into sleep by the shock of the years of their parental Christmas conspiracy to deceive.
T he next morning, my little brothers woke me up to see the “Santa” presents. We were not allowed to touch them until my parents came downstairs together, which they did quite early as they were as eager to see us open presents as we were to open them. It was part of the magic for them.
I said nothing to them. Nothing. I could hardly look at them. Who were they really? What else were they lying about?
I said nothing to my older sister, Janelle. The betrayal ran deep. She, my cohort in sibling subterfuge, had manipulated my perception of reality. She, my fellow front yard protestor who brought a new era of higher allowance in our family, was actually in league with them. We even had signs and marched in a circle while shouting our demands. We fought like hell for a full ten minutes for our right to more pocket change from our parents. We believed our feminine existence required a more lucrative acknowledgement, and we conspired to bring about allowance reform to great success.
I could not very well consort with a traitor who was sympathetic to the conspiracy. That magic was gone.
Judging by the way she said things about what “Santa” brought while looking at my parents in that “wink, wink” sort of way, it was clear she enjoyed the deception. My belief in Christmas magic was a mind game to them! This was a full-blown conspiracy to have fun at the expense of my gullibility!
I looked with pity at my two little brothers and sister, eyes filled with wonder at the magic. Those sweet, little victims. They didn’t know it was all a ruse- a manipulation of belief. I took in the scene like it was a silent movie in slow motion. Nothing held magic for me. There was no spark of anticipation. There was no sense of wonder. The magic was gone. Not even the Snickers bars held magic for me. Santa’s magical, gloved hands had come nowhere near my stocking. It came from Smith’s Marketplace, not the North Pole. I’d already saved enough allowance to buy my own Snicker’s bar. I didn’t need a full-blown conspiracy to be given chocolate. That was an over-complication of a simple transaction, but with holiday collateral damage.
Watching my parents smile and “ooh” and “ah” at my little siblings as they feigned surprise confused me. As they made overtures of gratitude for “Santa’s” generosity to our family, something clicked, and my mind grew a few sizes more. As I watched my normally stressed out and tired parents smile, laugh, and have fun, I realized that Christmas isn’t for children. It’s for grown-ups who feel magic through their child’s experience. The numbness of betrayal was warmed by the glow of the magic of Christmas my little sister and brothers clearly felt. I started believing in a child’s need to feel magic, and I silently consented to join the Christmas Conspiracy.
W hat grown-ups have largely forgotten, is that children are not born with an inherent demand to be given things on a particular calendar day of the year. That has to be taught. Grown-ups have also forgotten that children are the embodiment of fun. Kids create fun and see the magic in the every day things, even without a mass adult conspiracy to impersonate a fictitious celebrity.
Left to children, and without anchors of expectation set by adults, Christmas would be about making festive paper chains and cookies. Left to children, Christmas would be about gazing at icicles, making snow angels and catching snow flakes on tongues. Left to children, Christmas would be what a day in the life of many a child usually is: simply magical.
Thirteen years later, in 1996, I woke up on a Christmas morning and cooed at my eleven-month-old son as he toddled toward a Christmas tree surrounded by gifts. Some were for him, and some were for my now three teenage brothers and two young adult sisters. Mom and Dad had another son since the Christmas Conspiracy was uncovered in 1985. I joined my parents and five siblings in the conspiracy for his sake because he still had a small shred of belief in Christmas magic. In truth, we needed his belief because we were going through a crucible and needed to feel a little magic.
My husband, Mark Van Horn, had just passed away two months earlier. At twenty-one years of age, and without a completed education, my little Matt and I moved back in with Mom and Dad to begin the work of sorting out the details of my new life as a widow and a single mom. For two-and-a-half years before his death, Mark spent eighteen hour days working on his interactive media company. A month after he finished his third CD-ROM for kids for a major regional publisher, he died from complications of brain cancer surgery. On October 29, 1996 the magic of my own very happy marriage had been suddenly shattered just weeks before Thanksgiving, his twenty-seventh birthday, our third wedding anniversary, and Christmas.
Eleven months old, our son, Matt, was too young to care about Christmas morning, presents, or any of the magic of Christmas. I did not have the energy to care about Christmas magic. Grief has a way of sucking magic out of a person’s soul. Mom and Dad worried about my depression, and encouraged me to play Santa for my son even though he was too young to care. Looking back, they were wise and knew that setting my focus on creating magic would invite it into my life again. So, trusting their counsel, I got to work creating magic for Matt.
Sitting on the floor of the basement television room late on Christmas Eve, I wrapped little books and presents with mom’s special Santa wrapping paper. I wondered if Matt would enjoy his new toys. I filled a small stocking with simple snacks and a few treats. I filled mine with oranges and a few regular Snickers bars.
To my surprise, on Christmas morning nestled under the tree were packages to me from Santa. Sitting on the couch were two parents, older, sobered by grief, but smiling wide and still every bit as touched by the magic of seeing a young adult child’s eyes filled with surprise at receiving a new gift. Looking at the pictures from that time, I see my own smile of parental satisfaction on my face as my son’s eyes widened upon unwrapping a new toy. For a freshly widowed woman, that’s quite magical. Even miraculous.
M y sister Janelle was diagnosed with advanced cancer right before Christmas of 2017. We were all devastated. Despite revisiting the crucible of cancer and possible loss, it was beyond magical to see my older but vibrant parents stand strong together to keep the magic of Christmas alive. Mom, with help from my sister’s friends, created Christmas magic for a very ill Janelle in Denver. Dad stayed in Salt Lake City to continue the traditions of Christmas magic for their kids and grandkids, then afterward joined Mom and Janelle in Denver. It was their first Christmas apart since their marriage during the Christmas season of 1970.
As my mother readied herself to travel to Denver for Christmas, she commented that this would be the first Christmas without the grandchildren, and that she would miss being a part of their holiday magic experience. Her mom, my Grandma, passed away in August 2017. That loss was hard, and impacted the magic of Christmas for her and the extended family. Mom taking her own advice she gave me the Christmas of ’96, focused on making magic for the grandkids to attract its healing qualities into her life, as well as ours.
Now, a little over a year after Grandma’s passing, my sister’s grim prognosis seemed a burden too heavy to bear. Yet, Mom and Dad were stoic. As always, they put their heads down and did the needful things to help Janelle and their other kids and grandkids in the ordinary things. They do this to keep things stable. It’s part of their magic.
On March 29, 2019, one week after her birthday, almost exactly twenty-four hours after the birth of my brother’s son, and a few days before Easter Sunday, Janelle passed away from complications of cancer. It was very hard to feel the magic of anything. Yet, because of the long tradition of creating magic in the face of great stress and struggle, our family created it.
We focused on the joy and magic Janelle created in our lives. Janelle loved Christmas. Her nieces and nephews were her children, and she spent a lot of time making magic for them. It brought a lot of magic to her life, too. We felt a sense of spiritual awe and magical wonder at the symbolic and sacred timing of Janelle’s passing. Easter was a reminder to us of the promise of joyful reunion and of better things to come. For our family, this is the magic of Easter.
This year, my little sister and I messaged each other, pondering how to create some Christmas magic for Mom and Dad, as this would be the first one without Janelle. Shannon recommended we keep Janelle on the gift exchange list, and donate money or goods to a good cause as our gift to her. Service and goodwill are special kind of magic of which Janelle would definitely approve.
W hen people say that Christmas is for children, I beg to differ. Kids are taught to expect commercial Christmas magic by grown-ups. I declare that Christmas is also for grown-ups. Why? You see, I’m sure you have noticed that life is really hard. People get sick and sometimes they die. Sustaining even a basic lifestyle is expensive. Jobs and startup businesses are beyond stressful to build, and our little ones at home are counting on us to make it work. Sometimes we’re not sure we’re going to be able to make ends meet. Even when we do, we are often tired from striving. Understandably, stress gets plenty of our focus and attention, and the simple pleasures and magic of the ordinary and extraordinary do not.
My fellow grown-ups, we need to actively pursue creating Christmas magic to soften the sharp edges of life. This pursuit helps us to remember, even if for one day, what it is like live in the energetic glow of the healing magic of childhood wonder. Seeing the magic in life is a subject in which children are the ultimate experts. Most parents, grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles would agree that the magic in our lives most often comes from the children. We are their beneficiaries. We receive far more joy from their natural way of creating magic in our lives than we give with presents and Snickers bars. Ironically, one of the ways our kids create magic in our lives is by accepting our effort to play their game of creating magic by grown-up rules on Christmas Day.
Merry Christmas, friends. May your season be merry, magical, and bright.