It is a glum milestone of early childhood when, like a cloud across the sun, the suspicion arises that Santa Claus all along has been a pleasant fiction promulgated by parents, relatives, friends and the makers of electric trains and dolls.
This is not true, of course, even though as a thesis it gets rid of several uncomfortable and unworkable concepts, like arrival by chimney, reindeer on the roof and simultaneous appearances in Versailles, Vermont and Vista.
But Santa becomes our earliest exposure to the idea of an idea and we are the wiser for it. There is a slight gnashing of gears and teeth as we shift from the cherished reality to the cherished fantasy. Yet the gifts still arrive. Somebody must be doing something right.
There's a later milestone of growing up, when the truth sinks in that it really is more blessed to give than to receive (although it is still not half bad to receive).
Not many pleasures are more satisfying than hearing the delighted cry that says a gift was accurately chosen.
The next milestone is really not a milestone so much as a rite of passage, although there is a moment when you look around and see that you have come a far way and things are not quite as they were. The sunlight is mottled, there is enough bite in the air to cause a shiver, the merriment has an undertone of melancholy.
The ghosts of Christmas Past are not accusing, as Scrooge's were, but they are there, reminding you of other places, other years, names lined through on the Christmas card list, absent faces at the table.
T. S. Eliot notwithstanding, April never was the cruelest month, December is. I can't pinpoint a moment when the celebrations of the holiday began to seem suffused with sadness, although it was early.
My father died on Christmas Day when I was 12, but even then there was already a roster, almost a litany, of childhood friends and of relatives known or only known-of (Uncle Ray, Aunt Emma, Uncle Harry) who were unseen presences on the day.
The survival of the Christmas spirit is itself a large and holy miracle, given the ever more urgent commercializing of the season. It is a testament to the power of the holiday's originating spirit--an ingathering of the family and an outpouring of generosity--a spirit that embraces Hanukkah as well.
These days it is harder to surrender totally to Christmas, as it is to Thanksgiving, because it is so clear that the blessings of the days are unevenly divided. The unseen presences amid the presents include a world's worth of the unhoused, the underfed and the hopeless.
My daughter Nancy proposed that this year, instead of the usual multiple exchanges, the children and grandchildren draw names, one for one, and that the balance of the budgets go to good causes. And that's what's happening.
Yet melancholia, real as it may be, can't overwhelm the day. In those Depression-year Christmases of hand-around and hand-me-down presents, I inherited a complete set of Dickens from an aunt, who had inherited it from a 19th-Century great-aunt who inscribed it but, to judge from the uncut pages, didn't make it through the 32 volumes.
When I can, I dip into "Pickwick Papers" and sample the adventures of Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller and his father and Mr. Jingle and that whole flabbergasting cast of characters.
Dickens had experienced both melancholy and hard times and dramatized them unforgettably in "A Christmas Carol." But I came this week upon the evidence of resolute optimism, in his parting words in "Pickwick Papers" as, after 819 eventful pages, he settles Mr. Pickwick and his friends into a well-earned tranquillity.
"Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here," Dickens wrote. "There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light; we, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them."
The bindings are chafed and the pages have gone a brittle brownish beige. But the gift of Dickens has kept on giving these many years and I would share the gift with all who read, and with it a wish for the sunshine of the world.