Growing up I had plenty of heroes, but three in particular stand out. Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” because she could breathe underwater, which is very impressive to a four-year-old. Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House on the Prairie,” because she got to live on the frontier. Tumbleweeds? Covered wagons? I was sold.
The big guy, though, was Santa Claus.
Santa was and continues to be very dear to me. I jumped into the fairy tale full bore and quickly began to add my own adaptations. Beyond bringing me presents from Toys“R”Us, I was certain that if I wished hard enough, Santa would grant me my very own magic powers. I would lie awake at night and say the prayers they taught us in Catholic school, substituting “Dear Santa” for “Dear Jesus.” I modified the “Our Father” with requests for flying powers or the simple wish to have a really long ponytail that swished when I walked, because that seemed like a superpower in second grade. I was a little confused on the point of prayer, and I may have conflated the many men with beards in Western lore, but nonetheless I was a committed believer.
I put my parents in a sticky position, because they had to deliver more than gifts; they had to deliver magic. One year I asked for a magic kit to make me fly and turn invisible. Another year I asked for Hawaii. And another, for nine feet of snow in San Francisco. Besides the wish lists, my sister and I refused to sleep in our bedrooms on Christmas Eve. Instead, we stationed ourselves in front of the fireplace in the living room where the Christmas tree stood.
I still don’t know what kind of magic they used, but every year when I woke up there were presents beneath the tree and an ash footprint of an Ugg boot roughly my Dad’s size on the hearth, right near our sleeping heads. The year I asked for snow in SF, I woke up to a snow globe with a photograph of nine feet, as in the shoe-and-sock-wearing variety, inside. The Hawaii year I got a Tupperware filled with sand. Neither of these were letdowns – quite the contrary. I was awed and delighted that Santa managed to pull it off, and it seemed all the more plausible to me that someday I too would be able to fly, and that I would join him in the North Pole and we would drink hot chocolate and reminisce about old times.
The most magical part about Christmas was that Santa responded to my letters every year. I have since asked my parents how long it took them to write out the elaborate cursive script, but it turns out it wasn’t them writing the letters. We still don’t know who it was, but some mystery individual at the San Francisco Post Office made the dream that much more real. I can’t think of a more committed form of altruism.
I believed in Santa for a bit too long. Even when I did find out, I tried to find ways around the truth. OK, I told myself, maybe Santa isn’t a fat man in the North Pole who rides a flying sled pulled by reindeer, but he can still be my Fijian uncle, one of the most generous people I know. Or the postman who comes at 3:00 each afternoon who has a mischievous air about him. Or maybe my cat was Santa. I wasn’t about to let the magic go. For someone who believed that strongly in the fairy tale, you might imagine the world crashing down when the fairy tale ended, but I don’t remember a moment when the world did crash down.
Instead of losing Santa, I just transferred him into other parts of the world. I still believe in magic, obviously. And as corny as it is, I still believe in Santa. Not in the sense of Christmas cheer and all that jazz, but in the feeling of a presence that is so wonderful and big, who understands that kids have it more figured out than grown-ups. So in the midst of finals, and the rain, and the emotional turmoil that is being 18 to 22 years old, I wanted to remind you that magic is real, and that Santa is around to help you out.
Write Renée anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Santa, she’ll write back.