The Logic of Magic at Christmas, as Seen by a Small Inquisitor

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

December 28, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Garland L. Thompson write editorials for The Sun.

With the Christmas excitement safely past and New Year's not quite begun, now is the season for remembering. Especially with ''White Christmas'' still pealing from many a stereo and Natalie Cole's hot, dubbed-in duet with her father reminding everyone of just why they called him Nat ''King'' Cole.

We had a few white Christmases when I was growing up in Chester, Pa., during which I checked frantically to find any sleigh and hoof tracks that might be lurking on the roof. But even if the snow didn't come small children like me expected Santa to bring the goodies. Grown-ups think Nat Cole's line about every mother's child spying ''to see if reindeer really know how to fly'' is cute, but in my boyhood it was serious business. So serious that after the big day arrived and my presents had all been claimed, I launched an investigation.

Just how was it, anyway, that the famed fliers could actually make it all around the world in one night? Another curiousity was how the magic sack could always be so full. It never ran out of toys and candy, even though I had major fears that it would, just as the old man reached my house.

That probably was one of the roots of my interest in science. News reports were full of airplanes breaking the sound barrier in those days and I was a consummate airplane-watcher. If a plane could fly faster than sound, which all my friends and I knew traveled instantaneously, then maybe a sled really could fly faster than thought.

How a plain-looking cloth bag could bulge with gifts long after it should have sagged to the floor was a bigger mystery. But magic rushed in to save the day. After all, if there was enough magic in the world to make special reindeer know how to fly, and how to find their way from house to house, there ought to be enough left to refill the old elf's bag. Who knew, maybe he actually shot back to the North Pole for hot chocolate and pit stops.

My biggest investigations were reserved for figuring out how Santa got in, when every mother's child knew that his father locked securely the front and back doors to keep out burglars, even throwing the Dead Latch.

The story, familiar from ''The Night Before Christmas,'' was that the jolly old elf made it down the chimney and popped out the fireplace. But what if you didn't have a fireplace? We did have a brick chimney in our apartment in the Fairground Homes veterans' housing project, but a big, cast-iron stove fed it through an elbow of sheet metal. I measured that elbow by comparing my head and upper body to it when it was down for cleaning one day. No way could I get through that sooty thing, and the one poking up from the kitchen stove was even smaller.

Even if Santa could, he would exit into a roaring coal fire. That couldn't be a good thing at all.

I confronted my father, who knew everything, with this new knowledge and he said it was OK. Santa actually could come through keyholes into houses that didn't have fireplaces.

That relieved my anxieties for a few days, but then I wondered how even a guy who could turn into smoke could flow through a keyhole leading to a modern key cylinder, complete with spring-loaded flap to keep out dirt. I had watched when my father changed the lock cylinder in the summer before; I had examined the entire lock mechanism and could find no practical route, even for smoke.

And so it went. My father had an answer for most of my queries, but they usually involved unknowable magic. Quite frustrating for a kid with a logical bent, even if his favorite comic books also resorted to magic now and then, when the hero got into situations from which no believable human could escape.

Comic books held a fair amount of magic in those days, often masquerading as abilities imparted by the hero's being born on another planet. Superman's ability to fly, unquestioned among my small set, was but one example. Although I was troubled by questions about that. I could understand how a person from a bigger, heavier planet might be stronger than an Earthman, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound or run faster than a locomotive. But that shouldn't have made him levitate or have X-ray vision. I, who was bigger, heavier and faster than my little brothers, couldn't levitate at all.

For a while, it was OK. I couldn't yet read, so the logical inconsistencies of Superman had yet to be properly probed.

Santa Claus, though, was another story. His comings and goings bore directly on my material well-being. He had ears everywhere and could find out what you were doing wrong even while he was back at the workshop, making next year's presents. He got mail addressed to him from any place in the world, so long as it said ''North Pole.'' I, who had gotten help from my mother and aunts to write letters and then mailed them to him during the Thanksgiving Day parade, knew this for a fact.

So I investigated. I considered possibilities. I put things in the old elf's expected path through the house to see if he would pick them up and move them. He ate my cookies and milk but usually didn't touch the candies I left. He got the earnest notes I left on Christmas Eve and relayed through my parents, aunts and uncles what he thought of my behavior during the year.

Altogether frustrating that I couldn't spy him out, even when I woke up to go to the bathroom on the night before Christmas. My father said once that Santa had jumped back just as I crossed the kitchen, hiding out of sight around the corner. Oh, agony! After that, I made sure to check behind each corner.

Small children grow up, eventually, and the mysteries of the holiday gift season gradually roll away. But not the magic which lurks behind their imagination. Even adults carry that with them wherever they go, waiting to spring some on their own children. It's the way things are, and how they ought to be.

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