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Age Turns Christmas Spirit Into Shadow : Oh, Santa Claus is coming 'round, He's coming 'round tonight. --"Here Comes Santa Claus"

December 14, 1989|CHRISTA CONWAY | Christa Conway is a journalism student at Cal State Long Beach and a resident of Huntington Beach

Oh, Santa. What you used to do to my heart.

I remember a Christmas Eve when I was 5 years old. I can still picture the Christmas tree, sparkling with multicolored lights, its boughs heavy with tiny angels, candy canes and tinsel. We are gathered around it, my brothers and sister and I, all dressed in cozy flannel pajamas. And that song--"Here Comes Santa Claus"--is playing.

I believed it. I believed that a jolly old man was going to plop down our chimney and tuck a bounty of ribbon-wrapped presents under our tree. He would eat the Christmas cookies we put out for him, then climb onto his sleigh and soar into forever.

That night, I listened for Santa's sleigh bells. I can still feel my head against my pillow, my covers tucked around my shoulders. And the feeling in my heart--it was as though it was glowing like the stars in the darkness.

Before I fell asleep that night, I heard a faint jingling noise. I hurried to my bedroom window. All I saw was the house next door, the street lights and the moon. But that didn't matter. I had heard Santa's sleigh bells, and they sounded beautiful.

Seventeen Christmases have since past, and the 18th lies before me, some kind of nebulous occasion that means shopping, crowds, spending, obligation. I still like Christmas, of course; it's just that my mind--now skeptical, as a reporter's mind should be--tells me its all hype, a way to pump money into the retail business, a way to make credit card companies even richer.

I've changed, and Christmas has a way of making this painfully apparent. Now I get uncomfortable during the Christmas season, as if it is a long-lost childhood friend I've just bumped into at the grocery store. We don't know what to say to each other.

I suppose it's a matter of faith, that unquestioning belief we seem to possess only as newcomers to this world. As children, we didn't know about germ warfare, gang rape or the electric chair. That made believing in magic a little easier.

But our faith came from more than being oblivious to reality; it came from a lack of pride. We believed what others told us because we were not yet afraid to be the fool, not yet worried that someone might get the best of us.

As we grow up, we learn and we question. We have to, to survive. But somewhere along the way, our Christmas spirit becomes more like a shadow.

So work at it, I tell myself. Make cookies. Send out Christmas cards. Watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

But I've tried these things before. For a couple of hours or so, something flickers inside me that feels like it could be Christmas. But it's nothing like the galaxy of stars I felt as a child.

And I miss that. I miss calling the operator and asking for a Mr. Claus in the North Pole. I miss the times my siblings and I would line up in front of the fireplace and sing Christmas carols for Mom and Dad. I miss tossing and turning on Christmas Eve, my stomach tight with excitement.

But most of all, I miss believing that I really did hear Santa's sleigh bells that Christmas Eve when I was 5 years old.

What's strange, though, is that I can't explain what caused that sound. I'd like to say it was a dream, but when I heard it, I know I was in bed staring out my bedroom window, my eyes wide open.

It might have been a bell on the collar of a neighborhood cat, but how could I hear that from inside my second-story bedroom? It might have been my parents playing a little Christmas trick. But no, they have told me, they had no bells.

I'll never know what made that sound. But a part of me believes it was a small miracle--that somehow God opened up heaven and sent a jingling song to the tiny ears of a 5-year-old girl filled with the faith of Christmas.

Maybe I'm not so grown up, after all.

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