Christmas 1972. I was eleven and found myself struggling with the most important existential debate ever. Kids at school were starting to say Santa wasn’t real, but my neighbor, Alice, spouted back that she “knew there had to be a Santa because my parents could never afford all those gifts.”
I kind of agreed with that rationale; the expense of Christmas did seem beyond my parents’ means, but I still wondered. My brain was developing further and logic and reason were quickly overtaking childhood wonder. It was pretty confusing, and unlike past Christmases where I’d be on a festive high for a month, I felt agitated that entire holiday season. When Christmas Eve arrived, I was bereft. I had come to the conclusion it was true. Santa could not possibly be real.
It didn’t feel like Christmas to me that December 24th. Without Santa as part of it, my eleven-year-old self felt let down, sad. I stared at the Christmas tree lights, squinting my eyes, turning the small, white lights into unfocused stars. I clutched at a few gifts under the tree from my parents and jiggled them about but quickly put them back, uninterested. I picked at the food my mother had made: meatballs, sliced ham, fudge…but even the decorated cookies didn’t appeal to me. No one seemed to notice, though, the difference in this Christmas; the difference in me.
Well, almost no one.
As and my brother, Ray and his wife were getting ready to leave later that night – the two of them slipping on their winter coats in the tiny entryway – my brother glanced down at me and stopped, one arm in the coat sleeve, one arm out.
“Mary,” he said. “Have you ever looked out of Mom and Dad’s bedroom window on Christmas Eve?”
“No,” I scoffed, “what for?”
“Follow me,” he said as he ditched his coat on the floor and ambled down the narrow hall to their room. I followed reluctantly, shoulders down, melancholy and sad.
When I reached the bedroom door, my brother was already standing at the back window, clutching the curtain with his hand, pushing it back for a better view. He was back-lit from the bright moon and for some reason I paused there for a moment to stare at him. He looked different to me. Since getting married the previous May he seemed to have become larger. He had grown more into a man – stronger, more substantial – and looked less and less like the boy who had lived in the house with me just months before. I missed him living at home. With him gone, it was as if I were an only child.
He turned his head to me.
“Come here,” he said, pointing out the window. “Do you see that?”
I walked over and followed the direction of his finger. In the distance and the dark, I could see a small, red light.
“That’s Rudolph,” my brother whispered conspiratorially. “He looks awfully close. He’ll be bringing Santa here soon!”
I looked closely at Ray to see if he was kidding or making fun of me, but his face was serious. He even looked a bit awe-struck as he stared at the red light.
Wow, I thought. He believes and he is way older than me – an adult! It must be true, I trembled. Santa must be real.
I stared out the window a while longer with my brother as the red light twinkled in the distance. He didn’t put his arm around me or hold my hand but I could feel the closeness of him next to me. And although I couldn’t define it at the time, I could feel the warmth and love between us as we stood there that Christmas Eve.
Suddenly a thought broke the magic – Holy crap! That reindeer nose is pretty close…we better get to bed so Santa can come!
I quickly shooed my brother out the front door. I told my sisters, who were home from college, to go to bed soon, please, and I raced to my room and jumped under the covers. I drifted to sleep that Christmas Eve excited and happy. Santa was real. He would come to our house yet again.
And of course, he did.
Months later in the middle of the following summer, not really wondering about Christmas or Santa in the 80 degree heat, I thought about that red light for some reason.
My best friend, Alice, and I were lying in the long grass next to the house, gazing at the stars, trying to top each other by spotting the most unusual star animal in the sky. Right beyond the unicorn low in the sky I could make out the faint glow of a small, red light.
“Alice, what is that?” I pointed and she turned her head.
“I think that’s the water tower.”
“No, the red light,” I pointed again impatiently.
“It’s the water tower! It has a red light on the top to warn planes,” she explained.
I had turned twelve that May and suddenly had gone from a child to an adolescent. I had started to have crushes on boys. I had discovered Elton John. I had my first period. Discovering that the red light was a water tower beacon instead of Rudolph actually didn’t disappoint me. It made perfect sense.
I stared at the light, remembering my doubt the previous Christmas, remembering looking at that light in my parents’ bedroom window with my brother. I felt a swell of love for him for he gave me back Santa for one last year. I would never feel that special Christmas childhood magic again but that was ok.
I had my brother to believe in.