This year, I’m going to do something different for Advent. Here, on my blog, I plan to open up a seasonal memory each day to reflect upon my own story, the people I’ve known and loved, many of who are no longer here. I have no idea where this Advent journey will take me; nor do I know what this series of blogs will look like by the time I reach Christmas. Whatever happens on the way, I invite you to consider your own memories as windows into a deeper understanding of God’s presence in and through your own life as we approach the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Welcome to this Advent calendar of memory.
* * * * *
The Second Window: Christmas Morning 1964, 2 AM
I don’t know how long the house had been quiet, but I no longer heard the sound of reindeer hooves. Mommy told me that if I came out when Santa’s sleigh was on the roof, he would fly away and leave no presents.
I believed in Santa. Indeed, earlier that night, I had seen his sleigh flying through the sky. And, just a little while ago, there were those paw-steps above my bedroom. I snuggled under the blanket, pretending to be asleep.
I waited. Then came silence. Surely, I thought, Santa is gone now. What can it hurt to sneak out of my room and catch a glimpse of the tree?
I slipped out of bed. The floor didn’t feel cold. My toes were swaddled in footie-pajamas. I padded through the dark house toward the living room. When I opened the door, the soft lights of the Christmas tree made the modest space appear a fairyland. And the gifts! Piles of presents wrapped in colorful paper and tied with sparkly ribbons. Stockings full of candy! Our little house was transformed by silence and light, by the promise of what was to come.
I sat down on the floor transfixed. I don’t know how long I was there. Indeed, I may have fallen asleep in front of the tree, or perhaps I was lost in wonder. “What are you doing up?” I heard my mother say, half surprised, a little irked, but mostly gently. “I heard Santa,” I said, pointing to the boxes. “Ah,” she replied. “He’s come. Just like he promised.” I bobbed my head. “Now to back to bed,” she said. “We will open the gifts in the morning. Go now.”Years later, my mother told me that I had almost caught her putting gifts under the tree. That, of course, would have spoiled it. At five, I would have discovered that there was no Santa.
But that isn’t what happened. I believed in Santa. I was a fervent believer. I told everyone in kindergarten how I’d seen the sleigh, how I’d heard the reindeer paws, how the room was lit as if by magic. Santa was real, I assured my friends. I believe and you should, too.
Looking back, I suspect that the sleigh was an evening flight, an airliner in the night sky. And the reindeer paws? Well, that was my dad and mom in the attic above my room where the gifts were hidden. Every Christmas Eve, they would go up there with sleigh bells, acting the part of the reindeer to scare us children into staying put in bed while they moved the presents downstairs. At the time, however, these things proved that Santa existed.
Evidence is a funny thing. We read evidence through the stories we know. Thus, airplanes become sleighs and parents’ footsteps reindeer paws. Evidence can be so convincing; we can be so certain. About Santa. About almost anything really.
I suppose that some people would say that it is the same with God. When we are little, we interpret the evidence through the story of Jesus or God. But, when we grow up, we find it isn’t so. That it was an airplane or attic mischief all the time. Put away childish things and get on with it. Stop believing.
But I learned something that night when I was five years old. It wasn’t really about the evidence. Believing is about something much different than proof. What remains all these years later is the sense of wonder—the intense experience of joy when I opened the door to the living room and saw the tree pulsing with light. That Christmas Eve, our mundane living room appeared transformed; it was as if I had tumbled out of some sleepy half-existence into an unexpected world, a place of beauty and splendor. The ordinary became extraordinary, and the little house on Westfield Avenue was the doorway of heaven. Who knew?
A five-year old girl. That’s who. And, from that moment on, I was a believer.