Mom was folding laundry on the bed. I was pairing up socks, rolling each pair into a tight, little ball, and folding one cuff over on the outside to make a neat package.
“Don’t be disappointed,” she said, “but you won’t be getting much for Christmas this year.”
“How do you know?” I asked. It was, after all, still summer. School hadn’t even started yet. Santa couldn’t have already decided if I’d been naughty or nice.
“We don’t have as much money since Daddy left. So I won’t be able to buy a lot of presents for you.”
I looked down at the pile of laundry and dug out a match to the sock in my hand. What could that possibly mean? Had my parents been buying my Christmas presents all along?
“You already know this,” my mother said, “but please don’t tell June that Santa Clause isn’t real.”
Even though I was only nine, I knew I couldn’t tell my mother that I had believed in Santa right up until that moment. I didn’t want to make her sad.
The afternoon sun shone in the two bedroom windows, intensifying the color of the yellow paint on the three walls opposite the windows. The huge orange and yellow wallpaper flowers on the fourth wall were not at all out of place this time of year, and would keep the room from becoming depressing in the bone chilling winter months to come. Months that would no longer be filled with the magic of Santa Clause and his flying reindeer. I finished matching up the socks, and went into my own room to do my homework.
That Christmas Eve we went to the candlelight service at Calvary Baptist Church after we finished the traditional fish dinner that Grandma made. The sanctuary, normally plain and barren of ornament compared to Infant Jesus Catholic Church, was decked with pine boughs, wreaths, and candles.
As we walked into the church a few minutes before the service started, the organist was playing Oh Come All Ye Faithful. We sat about halfway back on the right-hand side of the sanctuary. Every pew was adorned with a wreath and a flickering candle at each end and pine bows draped along the back of the seat, tacked to the wood with red velvet bows above the pockets of Bibles and hymnals. The chandeliers were dimmed and it was dark outside. Inside, the dancing candle flames made shadows on the high ceiling and the naked, white walls.
Unlike a normal Sunday service, no-one congregated in the aisles talking. Instead we all took our seats and hummed or sang along quietly as the organist played. After a few minutes Pastor F came to the pulpit, the light from the candelabras on either side of the altar barely illuminating his face. We all stood, turned to hymn number 72 in the Baptist Hymnal and began singing. Then Pastor F read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2:2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 2:3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 2:4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 2:5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with Child. 2:6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 2:8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 2:9 And, lo, the angel of the LORD came upon them, and the glory of the LORD shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 2:11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the LORD. 2:12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 2:14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 2:15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into Heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the LORD hath made known unto us. 2:16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 2:17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 2:18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 2:19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 2:20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. 2:21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the Child, His Name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
After the reading, the pastor told us that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on the cross thirty-three years later, and rose again on the third day to save us from Hell. “We are all sinners,” Pastor F said, “We are all doomed to Hell and eternal damnation. But because God loves us, He sent his Son to Earth to be born, to suffer, and to die in our place.” If we would accept Jesus as our personal savior, he explained, we would go to heaven to be with God and Jesus forever when we died.
Jesus, it seemed, also knew if we were naughty or nice; but the consequences were more dire than whether I’d find an Easy Bake Oven under the Christmas tree, or a lump of dirty, black coal in my stocking in the morning.
Jesus loved us, the pastor said, and gave his life freely to save us from sin and hell. Wouldn’t anyone like to accept Jesus as their personal savior tonight, this holy night of Jesus’ birth? “If you would, get up out of your seat and come down to the altar, and pray with me now.”
I didn’t get up. I sat quietly in my seat as a few adults walked up to the front of the church to be saved. But when Pastor F had the new converts repeat the sinner’s prayer, I closed my eyes and said the words silently in my heart.
I was born again on December 24, 1971 in a middle pew on the right-hand side of the sanctuary in Calvary Baptist Church on Jayne Boulevard in Port Jefferson Station, New York, six months after I stopped believing in Santa Clause.
I didn’t tell my mother. I knew she was worried about me, sure that the christening I’d received in the Catholic church nine years before had not saved my soul. June was born again, too, and was baptized, dunked in the baptismal pool wearing a while robe like a tiny angel, several months later after she reached the age of reason on her seventh birthday. I wouldn’t expose myself like that, even though I was three years older. My belief in Jesus was private, like my belief in Santa had been. I didn’t cry like June did when my parents got divorced, I didn’t shed a tear when Grandpa D died, and I didn’t publicize my conversion. No-one in the congregation at the Baptist Church had to know. Not even my mother. I felt bad that she was worried about me, but not bad enough to share the secret of my salvation.
It’s only now, decades later, as I right this that I see that I accepted Jesus the same year I discovered that Santa was not real. How could I not have seen this before? I think a few things were keeping me from seeing what happened.
First, I was a child. I believed what the adults in my world told me, even when the pieces of the puzzle didn’t quite fit together. Even when I thought I was being rebellious or creative in my thought, when I rejected Catholic dogma and was born again, I was still basically following the path set out for me by my mother. I was soaking up the messages of the pastor and my Sunday school teacher. And this is natural. Children live in a dangerous world. It is safer and healthier for them to believe what adults tell them about the perils that surround them. But eventually we have to outgrow that need and begin to understand the world for ourselves. At nine, I was not even near being ready to take this step.
Second, I had no critical thinking skills. Perhaps this is not surprising for a third grader. But even as I got older, and read about walking to the beat of a different drummer in Thoreau, I failed to realize that the drum beat I was actually following was in sync with the ones of almost everyone around me. I thought I was rebelling against secular society by following Jesus; I thought I was forging my own path; I thought I was being a non-conformist. But I was conforming so much that I barely had a thought of my own. I wouldn’t learn how to truly think critically until my thirties.
Finally, I wanted the world to be magical. I loved reading magical stories, and I wanted to believe them. Santa, and later Jesus, gave me a way to experience magic in my own life. It’s not only children who want to keep magic alive, many adults feel the same way. Evangelical Christian author Randall Balmer puts it this way:
As a person of faith, I decided years ago that I would refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment Rationalism to be the final arbiter of truth. I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at work beyond my understanding and control — and where faith, not empiricism or complex apologetic proofs for the existence of God, serves ultimately as my guide.
For better or worse, desire is not the final arbiter of truth either. Some things are real and others are not. I wanted to believe as much as Balmer does. I wanted to live in an enchanted universe. In the end, the evidence for God just didn’t add up for me any more. Although the magic, as much as I desired it, just wasn’t real, I still find myself in a universe “where there are forces at work beyond my understanding and control.” I never chose to stop believing, but it happened anyway.
I still love Christmas. And magic. This is the kind of magic I do believe in:
We are made of stardust. The universe is full of beauty and magic and all of that resides in each one of us.
The knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth – the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars- the high mass ones among them- went unstable in their later years- they collapsed and then exploded- scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy- guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems- stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.
― Neil deGrasse Tyson