The boy in this commercial. This was me. I used to cut pictures out of catalogs and sales ads and put them on the fridge. I would illustrate who had the best price on a particular vehicle or playset and sometimes even add the address of a department or toy store. My mom would later admit how convenient this was for her, but I don’t know how her and my father kept up with all of the wants from me and my little sister.
I was obsessed with Star Wars, Transformers, Dungeons & Dragons, He-Man, M.A.S.K., LazerTag - every year it was something different. We didn’t have a lot to start with, from humble beginnings in South Dakota. We didn’t live in the perfect suburban neighborhoods featured in favored movies like E.T. or Poltergeist. We spent a memorable chunk of our childhoods in a small 2-bedroom apartment next to a busy highway. We had to use our imagination.
We still had more than our relatives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, so every Christmas we would make popcorn balls and other treats we would send back to them. We knew to appreciate and value everything we acquired. Regardless, it still stung to see how the other families we went to school with lived, to see children arriving on shiny new bikes, to hear about their excursions to ski resorts and annual winter train rides. The commercials and catalogs released during this time of year didn’t make it any easier, always making it glaringly obvious that there was a lot we didn’t have.
Still, my mom and dad did what they could to make every Christmas special. She was the manager of our complex and toiled cleaning apartments and keeping up with maintenance. My dad worked long hours at Zimmerman Metal. They were workhorses, which required me to be a latchkey kid. I was the last person to leave our apartment and the first one to come home. It made it very difficult for her to hide presents from me. It also made my responsibilities greater than most children.
Once while crossing the street on my way home from school, I was hit by a car. It was a hit and run. Someone had moved me off the road and onto a nearby lawn. When I came to, it took three policemen to hold me down. I was frantic at the thought of not getting home in time to do my chores and homework before my mother got home from work. Kids were disciplined differently in those days. My mother was very strict. I had suffered a severe concussion and was kept out of school for a time. When I was supposed to return, I was so afraid of having to cross the street again that I only pretended to go to school. Being a latchkey kid, no one was there to know when I left or returned.
After a week, one of my teachers finally phoned my parents to ask when I would be returning. It was hard to go back, to cross the street alone, so afraid of an errant vehicle flying out of nowhere or the big dogs that ran loose throughout the neighborhood. There was also a concern that I may have suffered memory loss. My father would wake me up in the middle of the night every night for several nights and ask me questions to gauge my memory. There were a lot of fears I harbored back then, fears which my parents worked to balance out with wonder every Christmas.
Across the highway was a drive-in. Every holiday season, they turned on a big star which was hoisted atop the screen. As children, we didn’t know where this star came from each December. It just appeared. My father told us it was the star of Bethlehem. We were Presbyterians and my mother was a deacon of the church. We went to Sunday school regularly, as well as bible camps and classes. One night when the star was shining bright across the highway, I asked my dad what the star of Bethlehem really was. I was expecting a generic answer related to religion, but he surprised me by informing me that some people thought that what they were seeing back then was actually a supernova. He thus took a miracle and grounded it in accepted science, making it more believable.
This was something he would do often in my early years. All of the unexplained was not impossible, it just took science awhile to catch up to it. I was fascinated by the Loch Ness Monster back then. Even this, my father said, had some probability of being a reality. He told me about the coelacanth, a species of fish thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago until it was rediscovered in the 1930’s. We would watch Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of and I would shiver with fascination at the thought of all of the unknown happening in our world, bizarre and frightening and tantalizing at the same time.
When I asked about Santa Claus, he told me that Santa stood for “saint”. Saint Nicholas was but one of many. There were many saints throughout history who were reported to have performed miracles all over the world. I heard about them frequently in Sunday school. A mysterious collective of individuals restoring light and hope to the world. Who were these people really? I thought of a popular 80’s show I watched regularly called Misfits Of Science, about a group of teens with psychokinesis and other “super-human” abilities. They drove around in an ice cream truck fighting crime. I wanted to be one of them, part of a mysterious collective of individuals restoring light and hope to the world.
Late one Christmas Eve, we were listening to the radio. It was a tradition at this time of year for local radio stations to broadcast updates from NORAD, who were tracking Santa’s flight across the globe. It was thrilling. We had no fireplace, but were told Santa didn’t need one. We left milk and cookies out for him anyway. Across the snowy highway I could see our own Star of Bethlehem gleaming in the frigid air. I had highlighted all of the things I wanted Santa to bring me from a Sears catalog and could only hope for the best.
A Christmas episode of the Pac-Man animated television series played in the background, but our attention was centered on the mysterious happenings going on above us. There was someone on the roof. My mom asked me to open the window a crack so we could hear better. I still remember the icy blast of wind and snow on my face as I forced the window upward and my curiosity was rewarded with the sound of bells. Sleigh bells above us, jingling over the rooftop. Santa was preparing to land and we weren’t in bed! Scant moments later I remember lying under my covers in extreme anticipation and panic. A sacred, ancient man who performed real-life miracles was actually going to be standing in our living room! I wanted so much to meet him, to ask how his powers worked, to inquire how I might train to join his band of those aligned with light and good will.
I heard the front door open and close, punctuated by the sound of more bells. I shot out of bed as silently as I could and crept down the hallway with the stealth I had observed from so many James Bond movies. As I peeked around the corner to the living room, all I saw were my parents. My dad, shivering, was handing the roof keys back to my mom, while she was handing him some hot coffee. He held a belt from a Santa costume ringed with bells, which he gently hid behind some records at the back of one of our cabinets. They both looked tired. My mom had blisters on her hands from shoveling snow, but she went right on wrapping me and my sister’s gifts with amazing efficiency while my dad simply sat back, absently looking at the ceiling.
Funny how I don’t remember being crushed by this realization. My parents worked so hard. They were always napping after work, always sleeping on their days off, the ghostly blue light of the television set flickering across their still forms as they restored their strength for another busy work week. I wanted to walk right into the living room and tell my mom she didn’t need to finish wrapping my Tie-Fighter, I had already seen it in the back of her closet last week, but they did so much to make this time of the year special. I would keep this secret for them and let my sister continue believing that there was deep magic happening all around us. And yet even though I already knew that presents were store-bought and the only Santas I’d ever see were strangers in shopping malls and Christmas plays, I still held onto the belief that magic was a very real force in our world.
I would also shovel snow for my mother, from a very early age. One of her favorite images of me is having fallen asleep at the dinner table several times, exhausted from shoveling porches, courtyards and granite steps. Too tired to eat, but made to sit at the dinner table anyway as my sister hid her food under her plate and my dad recounted the most recent company layoffs. Shoveling snow alone helped me connect with nature. Everything was so incredibly still after a good snow, like every living thing was having a moment of quiet reverence for such natural beauty.
I knew to come home as the sun began to set, turning sparkling soft carpets of snow and their blank white canvases into shimmering fields of pink and orange. I always felt so observed gazing into these fantastic sunsets, working alone as I crunched and slid through the infamous blizzards of the 80’s. There was a feeling of something I simply described to myself as “God”, a protective force I couldn’t see but could feel guiding my heart, helping me to find hope in moments of despair. I was connected to it, whatever it was was a part of the fabric of my being. It was cosmic in the way the stars twinkled over Christmas skies but was also in the architecture of the smallest snowflake.
It was something I felt every holiday when I observed people being nicer to each other, the way total strangers rallied around to help push people’s cars out of snowy ditches and the smiles they shared amongst each other. It was giving people the right of way and helping those less fortunate. It created such a balance this one time every year when everyone knew it was their duty to come forth and help those in need. We all seemed to be a part of this collective of individuals restoring light and hope to the world.
My father crossed into the next realm last year, and this month I find myself desperately scanning the horizon for that star, that remnant of a sun which exploded billions of years ago. It does seem like eons of time have passed, and yet I know what the magic of that time felt like. It is a force I have continued to look for throughout my entire adult life. The circle has been completed. I have become a workhorse. On my days off I sleep all I can and sometimes find myself absently staring at the ceiling, though I finally live in one of those cool neighborhoods I used to dream about in a home built in 1981. And all those things that “Santa” tried so hard to bring me but couldn’t on his blue-collar salary were eventually purchased on eBay and sit in lighted displays about my home. Part of my passion is showing others the miracles and wonders of our time, mysteries I have been present for, just like the ones which inspired me while watching In Search Of with my dad.
I keep looking for that star, but it burned out a billion years ago. There is only an echo of its light. Sometimes when I open my front door to an icy blast of wind and snow I think I am hearing the tail end of some rhythmic melody created by a strand of long-lost bells. Perhaps because I was thrown into a childhood of responsibility, crushing awareness and early adulthood, I am enjoying my childhood now. I can attend conventions where I’m able to meet the voice actors who brought life to my favorite characters from television and cosplay as my favorite heroes. I can still play Dungeons & Dragons and laser tag and amass “vintage collectibles” without anyone batting an eye. I have kept the “puer eternis”, the eternal child, alive within me. When I see the mountains above my suburbia glorious in brushstrokes of pink and orange, I am blessed with the tearful moments of wonder my parents always wished for me.
A deer has come to see me nightly, gently crunching in the snow to accept apple halves from my palm. A stag, it has the same curious, fearful and still eyes I did when I used to look across the highway at a star, which regardless of its origin, served to represent the deep magic that endures in this world.
“Did you know, Christopher, that the same thing that is found in a star is inside our bodies? A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, we came here from galactic winds...”
I still go to bed pondering that thought when neighborhood wind chimes are caressed by invisible but real forces and the sound of bells echo outside my window.
Merry Christmas to all and good will toward men.