I believed in Santa Claus for an embarrassingly long time. Even after I knew Santa was a construct of the holiday, I still believed that some miraculous being or entity provided for deserving people at Christmas. They needed only to truly believe in the magic Santa represented and they would receive it. I believed in the universe. I believed in the miracle.
On Christmas eve of my fourth year my family had gathered at my grandparent’s house in Covington, Indiana for the holiday. The adults were talking, merry-making, and likely enjoying a bit of holiday wassail in the form of whiskey Manhattans served on the rocks. I was the only child in the family then and bedtime wasn’t strictly enforced on a regular day, let alone at Christmas.
As the hour got later and the conversation turned to tales of Christmases past I showed no signs of nearing slumber. The adults would have to do some convincing if they were ever going to get me to sleep. My teenaged Uncle Jon explained to me in no uncertain terms that Santa would not come into the house if there was a child awake.
I remained unconcerned. We had all night, Santa would figure it out. Plus, Uncle Jon liked to tease me, he was probably making things up. My grandmother told me that the sooner I went to sleep the sooner I would wake up to Christmas morning and all of it’s magical gifts and wonders. I knew what she was getting at, but her logic didn’t track. Morning would happen at the same time whether I was sleeping or not. I didn’t want to miss any of the fun, besides they would probably get out the guitars soon.
I know now that they needed me to go to sleep so they could create the magical gifts and wonders of Christmas. They did an amazing job at this. Every year, Christmas morning looked like a toy factory exploded in the living room. The adults would assemble and set up all the toys and games so that it truly appeared to me as if they had been dropped there unexpectedly in the night by magic forces we couldn’t possibly comprehend.
After several attempts to cajole me to sleep it appeared as if they had given up. My uncle excused himself for the night, but I refused to retire.
Shortly after Uncle Jon said goodnight we heard a noise outside that no one could quite make out. The adults paused their revelry, Shhh. What’s that noise? We focused in on the auditory disturbance.
We stayed very still and listened intently to the night sounds outside the house on that cold Indiana Christmas eve. Then we heard it. The sound was unmistakable, sleigh bells. They were getting closer. Their rhythm was consistent with the aerial running motions of flying reindeer. I knew from every TV special I’d ever seen that this could mean only one thing, Santa was in the vicinity.
I felt the bottom of my stomach drop out from the sheer terror of knowing that I may have destroyed any chance at a Merry Christmas in 1980. There might not be presents if I didn’t fix this! I was in a full blown state of pre-schooler panic. What if Uncle Jon was right?
I bolted up the stairs to the bedroom as fast as my footie pajamas would allow. I dove into my bed, pulled the covers up over my head and closed my eyes as tightly as possible. I hoped I wasn’t too late. I was afraid Santa would know I was awake under that blanket and not deliver. I was so mad at myself, I started to cry. How could I be so stupid?, I thought. I’d been warned.
My grandmother came up the stairs to tuck me in and found me utterly inconsolable. She gently stroked my back and told me not to worry. Santa wasn’t mad at me. Everything would be fine. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t more upset. I had just broken Santa Claus’s one rule. He might never come back ever again! She called for my mother.
My mom also told me not to worry. Both women were being very cavalier about what may have been the complete dissolution of my relationship with Santa Claus. My mind ran amok. Without Santa what could Christmas possibly be about? What would be the point of all of the rest of it? The tree is there so he can put toys under it. You make cookies so that he can eat them. Who would I send my list to?
Mom said, Grandad will work things out with Santa, don’t you worry. Of course, Grandad would take care of it. He was good with these kinds of things. He was very important. He wore a suit to work and everything. He would just explain that I’d lost track of time, I meant no disrespect. If there was anyone in the world I trusted with such crucial matters, it was Grandad. My fears were assuaged, I began to relax.
My holiday panic attack had been just enough to exhaust me into dormancy and soon I was soundly tucked in. Christmas was back on track for the adults.
The next morning went off without a hitch. I was so giddy with commercial Christmas delight, the previous evening’s terror seemed like a distant memory. We were even able to laugh about what a close call it had been. I vowed never to push the limits of bedtime on Christmas eve again.
Years later in retelling the story, my grandmother revealed that Uncle Jon had been the one shaking the bells outside that night. I had kind of figured that out by then, but I don’t think anyone expected my reaction to be so dramatic. Most kids would have just gone to sleep, but I’ve always been a little type-A.