“Santa isn’t real, is he?” I was ten. I felt very grown-up, very in-the-know, now.
“Are you sure?” asked my parents.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sure.” I was worldly wise and unafraid. I understood that the jolly fat man and his eight tiny reindeer were an idea, and ideas are solid things. Other Christmas traditions would not vanish like the steam rising from my hot chocolate.
Christmas Eve came. We baked and decorated cookies “for Santa” and put out milk, and carrots for his reindeer. I felt no guilt, though, in stealing a cookie or three, while they were still fresh and warm from the oven. I played along and went to bed early, so that my parents could put up a live tree and decorate it to greet me, bright and merry, before sunrise on Christmas morning. One tradition that would not change is rising in the dark, at an obscenely early hour, to tear open the wrapping on long-anticipated presents. My grandparents would have driven twenty miles, sometimes in the snow, to wait at the foot of the driveway for the porch light to come on — a signal from my mom and dad that the little mouse was stirring, and it was time to run in and join the festivities.
Of course I didn’t get to sleep right away. Even though I was now too old to believe in Santa Claus, I was not too old to wonder what wondrous things I’d find in all the boxes I knew would still be wrapped and waiting under the tree! I was still awake to hear the sound of a man’s low, booming laughter, “Ho, ho, ho!” as tiny reindeer hooves hit the roof and skidded to a stop, right over my bed in a large room that was once an attic. Tinkling sleigh bells rang out merrily. I didn’t dare get up to look.
Morning came, and I bounded down the stairs. My grandparents arrived, right on cue. “Did you hear anything — odd — last night?” I asked.
“No, did you?” My parents looked so innocent.
“You didn’t hear bells?” I asked, trying not to drag Santa Claus into it.
“No, we were asleep.”
And there, under the tree, were presents labeled, “From Santa.” I looked around the room, and fearful that the grown-ups would think I was completely nuts, dropped the whole thing. “So who are these really from?” I asked.
“Who does it say on the card?”
“Then they must be from Santa Claus.” How they managed to keep a straight face still puzzles me to this day.
In 2010, my adult daughter and I were baking cookies “for Santa.” I had told her that story many times. Her brother, at 14, was well past believing in Santa. He went to bed shortly after the first batch of cookies came out of the oven.
In a month, I would be undergoing surgery for breast cancer, and my daughter and I were bonding over being “elves.” I was trying to keep the holiday cheerful — let worry wait till January. She and I stuffed stockings, put the finishing touches on the holiday decorations, baked more cookies, and…toasted one another with sips of Goldschlager, that festive liqueur infused with tiny flecks of real gold. We might have imbibed just a teensy bit more than a couple of elves ought to do.
And that’s when I found the camel bells. It was an old string of camel bells that my grandparents had brought back with them from a trip to the middle east when I was a child. My parents used to drape it over the Christmas presents so that if anyone tried to sneak a peek or shake a package before Christmas morning, those bells would sound the alarm.
They also made great sleigh bells.
Small bits of gravel served as reindeer hooves, just as they had when I was ten. My daughter and I took the bells, scooped up handfuls of stones from the garden outside, near midnight, and gently tossed the stones on top of the roof over my son’s bedroom. We shook those camel bells and tried hard to laugh like Santa. “Ho, ho, ho! Merrrrry Christmas!” Finally, my son came to the window and yelled something like, “Go to bed, you drunks!” ruining the illusion, no doubt, for half the neighborhood.
Every year since then, we’ve had a small sip of Goldschlager in memory of that night. My son gives us stern looks and shakes his head in disgust, but turns away at the last minute, lest we catch him laughing.
Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; and A New Leaf for Lyle. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young at heart. Subscribe to her newsletter at https://hollyjahangiri.substack.com/
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