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Art, deep as memory / At the holidays, the arts become especially personal, shot through with ritual and family tradition. On these pages, six encounters with words, images and music that left their mark on our writers.

Magic rekindled, the legacy lives on

December 23, 2007|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

For the last 15 years, as my inner Grinch and Charlie Brown annually struggle toward peaceful coexistence, one story has come to define the holiday spirit for me, probably because of the way it reconciles this season of wonderment and cynicism.

Author Gary Paulsen ("Hatchet") based his 1992 novella "A Christmas Sonata" on a childhood Christmas of his own circa 1943 , when his Army officer father was stationed in Europe during World War II and he and his mother lived on their own in Minneapolis. It's a beautifully composed tale that connects with me all the more because the rural setting in post-Depression America parallels my mother's youth in the coal-mining country of eastern Kentucky.

The story centers on a boy of 8 (Paulsen) who has a crisis of faith -- in Santa Claus, stemming from the unexpected sight of an alcoholic neighbor dressed in a Santa suit. Despite his mother's attempts to explain, "It was done," Paulsen writes. "Santa was ruined, was gone, and I knew he didn't exist and that I had been lied to and there never had been a Santa."

This occurs on the eve of a trip he and his mother take to northern Minnesota to spend Christmas with relatives, including the boy's cousin Matthew, who's slightly older, a bit more worldly (he knew how to cuss) and terminally ill.

All the boy knows is that the adults whisper, and sometimes cry, when they talk about Matthew. And Paulsen can't figure out why. His mother often worries that his father will be killed and won't come home. To an 8-year-old, this creates a conundrum: If dying means "not coming home," how can Matthew die when he's already home? The thrust of their visit is to help give the dying child one final memorable Christmas. And it boils down to the boys sustaining their belief in Santa.

In Paulsen's story, Santa, with real reindeer and sleigh, shows up late on Christmas Eve, in full sight of the whole family. "It's him," Matthew says in disbelief. "And it was him," Paulsen writes of the moment in which blind faith gives way to a deeper understanding coming from direct contact with life.

For my mother, whose father usually went into town on Christmas Eve and drank away the Christmas fund, all it took to confirm her wavering girlhood belief was a single sleigh bell she found in the snow one Christmas morning, next to sleigh tracks just outside their house. As an adult, she collected Santa figurines because she'd had so little in the way of holiday joy as a child.

She died in July, but for most of her life, that bell was him. And I feel just what Paulsen expresses at the end of his story. "It was him for each and every Christmas of each and every year that I have lived since then, and will still be him for each and every Christmas of each and every year that I have yet remaining."

"It was him."


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