My 5-year-old has become an insomniac. He lies in bed at night practicing the Christmas carols and Hanukkah tunes he is learning at kindergarten for the mothers’ tea. Every night he revises his wish list because he can’t decide whether to ask for Darth Vader’s light saber or Luke Skywalker’s speeder or a Princess Leia action figure. (He has it on good authority that Santa will likely bring him, in any given year, only one toy related to the promotion department of a major film studio.) Long after the bedtime stories are over and he’s God-blessed every single member of his huge, extended family, my son is still lying in the dark, wide awake, debating the relative merits of Oreos and vanilla wafers, trying to guess which cookie Santa might prefer with his milk on Christmas Eve.
These are pressing problems for a five-year-old, and I truly sympathize: It really would be awful to be the only child in the kindergarten concert who forgot the words while 100 mothers stared, and how is a kid supposed to choose between a light saber that makes authentic laser noises and a beautiful princess who’s an action hero to boot, and why don’t any of the Christmas storybooks just come right out and say what Santa’s favorite cookie is?
So, each night, my husband and I take turns lying down with our boy, trying to will him to sleep. We scratch his back; we sing lullabies; we murmur soft, comforting words: “You won’t forget the songs, but even if you do, no one will notice because there’ll be so many other children singing right along with you.” Or, “Your birthday is two weeks after Christmaswhatever Santa doesn’t bring you, you can put on your birthday wish list.” Or, “We’ll leave both kinds of cookies and let Santa choose.”
Even so, every single evening now, an hour or two after we’ve turned out the lights, our son climbs out of bed, tiptoes into our room, and looks dolefully at his father and me. “I can’t sleep,” he says. “I’m too excited to go to sleep.”
My husband, too, is sympathetic, but like me he is also aware that Christmas is still two weeks away. If this child doesn’t get some sleep in the meantime, we may all go stark, raving mad and be bouncing up and down, buck naked, in the branches of the Christmas tree when Santa finally does tumble down the chimney. “Just close your eyes, honey,” he sighs in the dark. “Just close your eyes, and I promise you’ll fall asleep.”
“If I close my eyes I won’t be able to see anything,” our son points out.
Of course, this isn’t the first year he’s found Christmas exciting. Christmas was a big hit last year, when he was 4. Even when he was 3, year before last, he literally jumped up and down and applauded in glee when we first plugged in the Christmas-tree lights. But this is the first year he heard Christmas music, back in October, in all the stores and understood what it meant. This is the first year I couldn’t steer him past the fake Christmas-tree forest in Target until at least Thanksgiving. This is the first year anticipation began long before the altar girls lit the first purple Advent candle in church.
It’s been a long, long time since Christmas held for me this sort of anticipation, the frantic sort of eagerness that makes it impossible to sleep. I’m nobody’s Scrooge, but for the past decade at least, Christmas has not exactly been an occasion I’ve looked forward to with undiluted joy.
As the family member who spends the fewest working hours away from home, I’m the one who shepherds in the season around here. I’m the one who wastes 36 pictures on a 36-exposure roll of film, trying to get both children to smile at the same time for the Christmas-card photo. I’m the one who braves the surliest people in the mall and the worst drivers in the nation to find affordable gifts for 37 members of the extended family. I’m the one who stands in line for 40 minutes at the post office, squirming baby on my hip and a heap of packages stacked between my legs, while the heat inside my overcoat reaches a temperature sufficient to set the Christmas pudding on fire. At least a dozen times a day I’m the one who explains that Santa will not pass by our house without coming in, no matter that his way down the chimney is blocked by the 20-gallon aquarium in front of our fireplace.
Around here, the trials of Santa alone would stymie the jolliest holiday attitude. Our first son has a proclivity for requesting odd or unavailable gifts, often at the last possible moment. When he was 2, the family next door moved away to California on Dec. 23; for hours that day, our little boy sat by the front window and watched the movers load the entire contents of the house into a big, black moving van decorated with an orange stripe along the trailer. That evening, 24 hours before Santa’s scheduled visit, our son announced that the only, only thing he really wanted from Santa was a big black-and-orange truck that made beeping noises when it backed up. By the grace of God, Santa found one.
The next year he gave Santa Claus plenty of warning when he told the Santa impostor in the mall that his dearest wishes were a gold bugle and a toy pitchfork. Neither item is on standing order with the elves at the North Pole, and helpful emissaries all over the Southeast were unable to locate either. Santa settled that year for a toy rake and a plastic trumpet.
I’ve noticed that it makes Santa pretty cross to work so hard to provide exactly the right gift, only to be forced by a Toys-‘R’-Us economy to settle for ordinary yard equipment in the end.
This year our first son’s wish list is actually pretty manageable, his one-year-old brother has no wish list at all, and the nausea of early pregnancy convinced me to shop by catalogue for the 37 family gifts, which, even two weeks early, are already wrapped and waiting under the tree. I don’t even mind so much the sleep I’m losing as my restless son tosses and writhes in his bed, too excited to sleep, in the next room. There’s something kind of heartening about that sort of eagerness and anticipation.
I may be 36 years old, but at Christmastime I’m reminded again that it hasn’t been all that long since I felt that way myself. I may not have been waiting to hear reindeer hooves on my roof or longing for a Darth Vader light saber, buteven stuck in ordinary, plodding adulthood as I amI understand desire. I’ve known what it’s like to lie sleepless in bed, aflame with yearning, brim-full of hope for a magical kind of joy that’s rare and amazing and timeless and that, for just a moment, seemed almost, almost in my grasp.