By Jennifer O’Toole

Every Christmas Eve, after I’d put on my brand-new nightgown and set out the cookies and hot chocolate, I’d turn the lights off in my bedroom and peer up into the big, black night sky. There, in the warmth of my room, kneeling on my soft bed, I’d hold the white window shades behind my freshly-shampooed head, and lean close to the glass – right up until the tip of my nose touched the icy pane and puffs of warm breath made circles on the cold surface. I can still smell the too-stale air blowing up from the heater. I can still see those tiny pinpricks of lights twinkling above the blue house across the street…and I can remember waiting…peering over neighbors’ homes – trying to scan the inky sky until I could just make out…..THERE! A red light! It was faint – which meant I still had a little bit of time to fall asleep – but Rudolph was most definitely there, moving smoothly high above!

Then quick as a flash, I’d let the shade go with a bang! slipping fast down under the covers, letting just my nose and copper pigtails peek out, trying desperately to shut my eyes and get to dreaming. But try as I might, sleep was out of reach – until I heard the bells. I don’t know how I could have heard such a gentle sound from so far off, but I did. And once I heard those distant jingles, everything in my little corner of the world was right. Safe. Giggly. And absolutely full of love.

Santa is so much more than a guy in red velvet. Kids know that. And usually, adults treat the Jolly Guy with proper respect, too….

But sometimes, they don’t remember how truly and desperately important he is when the things you really want don’t fit in a box. Like when you ask, as I did, for a friend for Christmas…it’s not that you expect that impossible something to appear under the tree. It’s just that maybe he can do something. Something, you know, that nobody else quite can. Something to make the world, well, safe and giggly and full of love. For real. All the time. After all, I remember thinking, he – Santa – was my friend. So maybe he could find someone else who would like me, too.

Now, somewhere along about the age of 7 or 8, people start changing their tunes about Santa. It’s a big hoax – a trick – a whole made-up story, they’ll tell you. And for a while, you kind of have two choices: ask your folks or avoid the question at all costs. But either way, there comes a time when every person has to find out for real. You don’t want to know….but at the same time, you do.

Is. Santa. Real?

A few years ago, Thomas & Everett asked their mom that question. They live in California, which is pretty far away from me – so I have never had the chance to meet them. But, it seemed that mom tried to give a simple answer to what is actually a really complicated question – and it backfired. Thomas and Everett got mad. They felt confused and seriously mixed-up. And so did their mom. So she wrote to me and asked if I’d help…and you know what? I figured that this might be the single most important thing I ever, ever wrote.

When you are a baby, your parents stand in front of you, cover their faces, and then burst out saying, “Peek-a-boo!” And you know what happens? You laugh. Well, maybe you get a little freaked out at first, but eventually, you catch on that some CRAZY magic is happening here! That Mom or Dad person is there – and then all of a sudden – BAM! They’re gone! Vamoose! Vanished into thin air! And then, what do you know? Whoosh! They’re back, laughing and making some silly sound – peek-a-something-or-other. And then, they do the WHOLE UNBELIEVABLE THINGS AGAIN!

What? You don’t think it’s magic? That’s just because you know a little bit more. But to a baby, Peekaboo most certainly IS magic. You see, babies don’t understand that when someone is out of sight, they haven’t disappeared – they’re just hidden. So when little baby you suddenly couldn’t see Mom or Dad, your brain said, “Whoa! MAGIC!” And it was AMAZING. And you laughed. Then, when you could see them, “Whoa! Magic!” They were back. And it was AMAZING, too. And you laughed even more. And so the magic continued.

Have you ever heard of the Aurora Borealis? Well, the Earth, it turns out, is like one big magnet all wrapped up in invisible forces. And hundred of feet above our planet, where the outer edges of that magnetic field touch the tip of space, microscopic energy particles bounce and spark against the fields. The result is what we call the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. For hundreds of miles, the sparks fill the dark skies near the North Pole with beams of dancing color and light. (Yes, the North Pole.)

But five hundred years ago, nobody knew what caused the light shows in the heavens. They seemed like magic (actually, they still do). Now, here’s the thing: the scientists five hundred years ago weren’t dumb. They just didn’t have Wikipedia or the Science Channel or NASA to go to for answers like we do. We know more, but really, we aren’t any smarter.

OK. So now I have two questions for you.

  1. 1. Were your mom and dad there even when you couldn’t see them during Peek-a-Boo? Of course.
    2. Were the magnetic fields there, even though nobody knew about them? Of course.

    Wonderful things which are not known or fully understood. They are real. And THEY are what we call, “magic.”

The word “magic” is just the way people have always described things they don’t understand – whether it’s a card trick or a mysterious comet – your parents playing peekaboo or an invisible magnetic field. In fact, I’ve often thought that reason adults stop believing in Santa is that they get too busy to notice magic. But really, if we’ll just look and listen and feel with sharper senses, the world – the heavens – are FULL of magic, just waiting – waiting – for us to notice. As long as there are mysteries, there will be magic. And that’s forever.

Please understand, I’m not talking about wands or spells. I’m talking about magic that is as real as the love your parents felt when they bopped up and down just to entertain a silly, giggling, diaper-wearing kiddo. I’m talking as real as the bigness of the heavens and the smallness of us, just little folks down on the ground.

Magic is a real thing, like love. It can’t be touched. Or poked. Or bounced. But it is there. It is everything we imagine and sense but can’t prove. Five hundred years from now, little children will know so much more than today’s most brilliant thinkers. And five hundred years further, the same will be true over again. We are like the little baby. We’re delighted and amazed and happy and excited and want the magic to go on forever.

And it does. Santa is part of that.

Santa is very, very real. And he is very, very magical.

Santa is wonder and joy and friendship and kindness and giving. Any little kid can tell you that. He is big hugs. He is your friend who never forgets you and always shows up right on time. He is love no matter what you’ve done. He is playful and safe. He is home. He is everything simple and everything big and amazing. He is more than any person can explain. He is magic. And magic is real.

When you are small, your parents share this enormous love with kids can understand: a beautiful story. They tell you about a very real, wonderful man called Nicholas who gave everything and asked for nothing. He decided to do good. He was there when he was needed. And he was full of love – so very full of love that it spilled out over everyone he knew…and kept going. It’s still going now.

You’re a little bit older – that’s why you’re asking questions. And that means you get to know the next chapter in the Santa Story.

As Nicholas’s love has spread, long the way, some people may have exaggerated the size of his belly. And no, I’ve never actually seen an elf. (But I do like smiling! Smiling’s my favorite!)

The elves. The suit. They are like sprinkles on the sugar cookie – sweet decorations that everyone loves. And, yes, especially at Christmas there’s always room for a little extra sugar.

But now, you’re ready for the Big Stuff. This next chapter in the Santa Story: the secret of how one man, Nicholas, has lived on and on and on… Love. Really. Really. Really. Big. Love. Love too big to stay inside him. Love that causes miracles to happen. Love on a magical scale.

Nicholas wanted to be like the original Christmas Hero. And so like THAT guy, Saint Nicholas (whose name sounded more like Sint-nik-klaus at first, and then Santa Claus) put others first. He listened when others spoke. He smiled and sang and cared about children – just like you – and never stopped. And at some point, that love got so big that it overflowed…and caused someone to do the same. Maybe to give a gift. Maybe to feed a neighbor. And then that love made someone else’s heart full. So they sang a song about a baby, about the gift of presence not of presents. And then another someone wasn’t alone. And that contagious love has never, ever stopped. It has become Christmas magic.

By Santa’s example, younger children learn to believe in things they cannot see – like friendship, faith, hope. Then, as we grow, we are entrusted with his secret – and with his power. We finally get to give back to Nicholas in the way he has always given to us. We get to fill stockings and wrap gifts. And now you do, too. Santa doesn’t need elves to help him. He needs us. He needs you. Today, I wish you great congratulations. You haven’t been lied to. You haven’t lost an old friend. You just weren’t ready for Santa’s REAL secret. Now you are. And now you are initiated onto his team. You get to be MAGIC.

Sing a carol. That’s Santa. Stuff a stocking. That’s Santa. In every single thing you have ever loved about Christmas – the manger and animals, the crunch of wrapping paper, the smell of chocolate and your favorite cookies baking, Charlie Brown’s tree, the Grinch, silly, floppy hats and reindeer food – ALL of it inspires love and kindness on an EPIC scale. And ALL of that magical, bigger-than-we-can-ever-explain love is REAL.

Do you remember that I told you about the jingly bells I used to listen for every Christmas Eve? Well, here’s you one last secret. When I grew up, I asked my parents about those bells. And you know what? My mom never rang any bells. My dad didn’t ring any bells. Nobody rang bells. But every year, faithfully, I heard them.

And you know what? Now that I’m grown, I still listen for Santa, just a bit differently.

My kids and I have what we call “Santa Chimes.” They’re beautiful, ornament-style bell chimes we hang outside, rather than on the tree. Of course, we can’t see the wind that moves them, and no, we can’t touch it, either. But we can see what the wind does – we can feel what it does. The same is true for love, magic, and yes, for Santa. Because the “realest” things are often the ones we cannot hold or even really understand.

On Christmas Eve, after we leave cookies and read “The Night Before Christmas,” we will hang our humble Santa Chimes, and then we will listen to them jingle in the invisible wind. And just like when I was little, I will hear the sound and believe. Yes, Thomas and Everett, I believe in wonder and possibility, and most of all, in powerful, mysterious, endless love. I believe in magic. And that is why, no matter how old I get, I will always, always, always believe in Santa.