In a family video of Christmas Day, from around 1986 or so, my skepticism is the real star.
“Somebody’s trickin’,” I say, when I see the mounds of Christmas presents that have appeared under the tree, as if by magic.
But I don’t believe in magic, not even at this tender age. All the gifts from Santa bear my mother’s handwriting. All the gifts from Santa are items that were readily available at local stores. All the gifts from Santa are clearly crafted by American designers and marketers and assembled in China. It says so right on the box. I was a precocious kid, and I can only now appreciate the moral misgivings my parents must have had in trying to pull a fast one on their bright little girls who seemed born with an annoying tendency to call them on their shit.
I played along for the sake of my little sister, who was little and whose big bright eyes would widen appreciatively in the presence of Santa’s magic for another couple of years. We had a family talk years later to clarify the Santa issue, but both my sister and I already kind of implicitly knew that the tradition was just that, a tradition. I didn’t feel betrayed by my family, though that probably is a fair feeling to have when your parents lie to you about the surveillance of your good and bad deeds, and bribe you to behave with the promise of a Barbie RV and a Casio keyboard. It wasn’t their fault. Participation in traditions isn’t always a conscious choice, and my parents were young and wanted for us to feel like we lived in a magical world. That’s a noble thing to wish for your children. I could never begrudge them that.
When I was about 11, I had my first experience with Having an Opinion of my Own when it came to Christmas, namely when it came to the idea of Christ. I didn’t believe in Jesus or God anymore. For me, it was the same concept as no longer believing in Santa, though it did seem that many of my peers clung to the Jesus thing with much more tenacity than the Santa thing. I couldn’t… and in many ways, still don’t… fully understand the distinction there, between a faith in a divine Jesus and the belief that being good means a magic man will reward you.
But at age 11, I was laying awake at night with knots in my stomach, trying to sort out the fact that I still wanted very much to experience the joy of Christmas but could no longer accept the divinity of Christ. I wrote long, meandering entries in my journals, trying to square this circle. In the black-and-white way only an 11 year old can see the world, I saw my new found atheism as a revocation of my right to Christmas. But at the same time, I still really, really wanted that Gameboy.
Years went on and I grew up and Christmas became less of a big deal. I wrote cards and bought gifts for my small circle of friends. The piles of presents from my parents shrank and became gift cards, necessities for dorm life, and, some years, just a phone call: “What would you guys like this year?”
But even though I knew fairly early on that the whole Santa thing was a sham, even though I see very clearly the crass, emotional manipulation of advertisers from car manufacturers to jewelers to toy companies, I find myself grasping for those feelings of wonder and delight that I knew before I began my lifelong quest to Figure It All Out. I suppose it’s only human, to want to give oneself over to the sublime, sparkling beauty, to the magic, to the blinkered innocence of childhood and the feeling that anything can happen. There are a great many things human beings will do in order to try and recapture that set of feelings. But ever since that Christmas in 1986, I’ve personally had a harder time responding to such efforts. My brain is set up in a way that it insists on answers. I need the real, the tangible, the reliable satisfaction of first-hand experiences.
So I try not to put too much pressure on myself to feel a certain way about certain times of year, certain moments, certain benchmarks in my life in general. While I may never experience the thrill of childlike wonder at gifts that seem to appear from nowhere, I instead feel the thrill of seeing an old friend in town for the holiday. I watch my kitten bat at the tree decorations and curl up among the gifts like the funny little treasure he truly is. I resist the urge to question the surprise my husband says he has in store for me. I laugh at the goofy social media posts from my family, and feel a swelling in my heart that means I am missing them… the sweet feeling that I care enough to wish they were closer. These feelings aren’t the same as feeling as though I live in a magical world. But they’re real. And they’re mine.