Dear kids, (and parents, too)

December 24, 1990

There's a place I fly over every Christmas Eve, a small graveyard on a hill. I've forgotten the name of the nearby town, but it has 31 houses with 57 chimneys, 13 dogs that bark and two that bite, and three children who don't believe in Santa Claus.

Last year, in this graveyard, someone had placed a string of lights on a tombstone. Not garish, blinking bulbs, shouting good cheer as if everyone were asleep during the holidays: They were subtle white things that looked warm and pretty from above.

What could it mean, I remember thinking, as the lights quickly faded from view. Was it commercialization taken to the limit, an advertisement, maybe, for perpetual care? Or was it a sincere gesture to include a departed loved one in the festive spirit of the season?

I never found out. Many strange and lovely sights remain mysteries as they pass beneath me on Christmas Eve. But I know which explanation I prefer for the graveyard lights, just as I hope, every year, that the beauty I see stays true as I descend to rooftops and lawns.

Take your house. At first, it's part of a yellow blanket of illumination, extending nearly from horizon to horizon. Then, it becomes a point of light, then Christmas candles shining in the windows, and, finally, the soft night light beside your bed.

And it's in the glow of that light I see you every year. Head or toes, depending on which end is on the pillow in the early, quiet hours. Some children present me with knees, some with elbows, some with teddy bears held outstretched over their heads, as if to ward off the dark with the bravest toy in their beds.

But I know who's behind the bear, and the little sleepers never hear. Santa doesn't even ruffle the tinsel on the tree when he passes, let alone creak the floorboards or tread on the cat's tail. If you stay up to catch me, remember: The sound of your breathing will give you away. Take slow, quiet, regular breaths, in and out, as the long minutes go by. Keep your eyes tightly closed, too. I'll be fooled easier that way.

The cookies you leave will disappear, I promise. In the beginning, I nibble them as I work. As the night grows old, I stuff them into my bag. So it doesn't get smaller, but swells with goodies to take back to the North Pole and the elves. I used to worry that you'd follow a trail of crumbs to my home, but it is a long walk in slippers and pajamas, and the risk of missing Christmas morning just a little too great.

Over the centuries, I've watched generations of children grow, and the rush of time continues to amaze me. It's not like that with elves. They stay small. A size 1AAAAAAAAAAA tinkly slipper fits an elf almost forever. And my reindeer seem about the same, a little gray about the muzzle at 500 years, perhaps, a touch less speed when I turn up the throttle on Christmas Eve.

But kids! They sprout, until the flaxen-haired little girl is a mother of her own children, and a grandmother, and then, I wonder, maybe someone has decorated her resting place with the warm white lights she loved so much.

Santa doesn't change much. My beard's already white, my skin's already wrinkled and rosy. My "gifts" remain the same -- the quick and quiet step, the skill to read your letters no matter how badly scrawled, the trick of getting reindeer off the ground and flying in formation, the ho-ho-ho heard round the world.

No one has ever seen me on the night when you and all Earth's people are the most important things in my life. I'm like the shadow of a bear, coming out of hibernation to see what's happened since last waking.

And the world I see, in the frozen starlight of the north and the warm south winds, is my only memory of another year. I compare it with other Christmas Eves, in the war years, times of sickness and poverty, seasons of natural disaster. Sometimes, it seems to me that mankind's progress has been great. But always there are those in need.

My power is simple: to inspire the spirit of Christmas, the selflessness and good will that make this time so special. If it reaches high enough on this night, and on Christmas Day, there may be enough to last the new year.

That spirit has always been easier to kindle in children. They keep it longer and closer to the heart. And although non-believers, and former believers, sadden me, it's not the loss of faith in flying reindeer and jolly old Santa, but rather the end of innocence and the single-minded joy that make children the catalyst for Christmas.

When I return tonight, if the graveyard isn't lit, I'll understand. Doors that were open last year are sometimes closed. Meadows disappear, and with them the creatures whose eyes used to shine up at me from nests and burrows. Families relocate, and Santa sees familiar little heads on pillows in different homes and different towns.

Don't worry. He'll always find you, one special night of the year, when the magic of Christmas gives the air a spark and fills the world with wonder.

Love,

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