The Experience That Made Me Believe in Santa Again

Holiday magic is real, people.

Holiday magic is real, people.

The holidays make me cranky. As the first week of December ushers in the hap-hap-happiest time of the year, things begin rubbing me the wrong way: I don’t enjoy Christmas carols playing in the drugstore when I’m picking up tampons. I’m bothered by the sudden ubiquity of the word magic. And while I practice goodwill throughout the year, I bristle at the idea of a season designated for cheer and warm wishes.

But I’m not entirely a grinch. I like seeing photos of my friends and their children on the holiday cards that fill our mailbox. I savor the scent of fresh pine when I walk past a stand of Christmas trees. And many Decembers ago, when my son was an infant and my daughter was three and a half, I thought it’d be nice to show her the festive displays in the windows of Macy’s. In my six years living in New York City, I had never seen them myself.

On this mildly cool weeknight, the four of us would head down to 34th Street. I called Macy’s to ask how late Santa took visitors; the woman on the other line said 5 o’clock. We’d miss him, since we wouldn't arrive until around 7, after my husband’s workday and dinner. But that was OK. Sofia didn’t know that seeing Santa was possible, and at merely four months, Alex went along everywhere just for the ride.

The window displays were spectacular: In a wintry forest scene, a life-size lion moved his head and roared loudly without scaring the lamb and penguins sharing his kingdom. In another window, Santa sat in the middle of a toy-filled living room, with toys on a track circling around him, while a giant polar bear poked his head out of the wall to lick a candy cane.

With Alex strapped into the carrier on Jim’s chest and Sofia in the stroller, we walked leisurely around the block, amazed by the extravaganza. After gazing at each of the many displays, it seemed we should be heading home. But this rare weeknight family excursion had been so delectable that I didn’t want to return to our small, messy apartment yet. As a full-time parent, I didn’t get out much beyond the grocery store and playground. Peering into Macy’s through its double doors, I was impressed by a colossal archway of poinsettias. “How about we take a look inside?” I suggested to my husband.

One elegant archway of poinsettias led to another. We strolled around the first floor cosmetics department, admiring the lush poinsettias everywhere. I can’t say which grew more rapidly—my new appetite for creative holiday exhibits or the thrill of being out of my element—but I said to Jim that it’d be fun to peek at Santaland, the area where Santa Claus received visitors.

My husband was reluctant. If Santa had left, what was there to see? Hadn’t we enjoyed our fill? It was 8:45 p.m., after all. We still had to factor in our subway commute home. But Alex had no regular sleep rhythm, so a late bedtime for him didn’t matter, and Sofia didn’t have preschool the next morning. Another ten or fifteen minutes seemed harmless.

We rode the elevator to the eighth floor where, amid the racks of coats, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. As we got our bearings, a woman in a green elf hat, a Macy’s employee, popped out from around the corner saying, “If you’re here to see Santa, it’s this way. You’d better hurry. You’re the last ones.”

I couldn’t believe it. Evidently, the person on the phone had gotten the time wrong. Santa saw visitors until 9 p.m. Excited, we started down the path the elf indicated, walking through a train car and emerging in a new, sparkling universe—a winter wonderland blanketed with soft cottony snow, where the cheery music of The Nutcracker played. Overhead, tiny white lights peppered the boughs of a massive oak tree. More lights twinkled on countless Christmas trees of all sizes. Among the trees, on either side of the long, winding wooden pathway, there were many sights to behold—ballerina teddy bears twirled on stage, penguins in bright-colored scarves balanced on skis, polar bears seesawed on a jumbo candy cane.

We navigated the path swiftly, exclaiming “Look!” as we passed the red-clad teddy bear marching band, the enormous sled piled high with toys, the miniature old-fashioned town encased in glass circled by an electric train.

I didn’t know if Sofia, having been whisked into this alternate world, realized what was imminent, so when we neared the end of the walkway, I stooped to her level. “You’re going to meet Santa,” I explained. She lit up.

Stepping out of the winter wonderland and into a waiting room, a few friendly store elves unburdened us of the stroller and our coats and then escorted us around the corner to where he sat—Santa Claus. Spot on. The real McCoy. I was startled. Everything about him was authentic: His formidable size, the spectacles, the white beard. His kind eyes even twinkled. I was quickly growing certain that, after his visit with us, this man’s commute home would require flying reindeer.

Santa rested comfortably in his armchair, smiling as we approached. He gestured for Sofia to come forward. Our confident, chatty girl was stunned. I had never seen this look on her face. As I watched her bravely sit on Santa’s lap, I sensed that something within me had shifted. Seemingly, while I had moved through Santaland, the hundreds of tiny white lights had melted the hardened layer of jaded adult, exposing the little girl still living inside of me. She had been sleeping for so long that I didn’t imagine she could be awakened. Now, unmistakably, she stirred. For the first time in ages, I remembered what it felt like to believe in Santa Claus.

As we headed home, I suspected that, in the wake of such excitement, Sofia would not be able to wind down. But she went to bed without a fuss. Instead, I was the one who could not fall asleep. With my baby son quiet in the crib at the foot of my bed, I listened to the hiss and ticking of the radiator, awash in a swirl of thoughts and emotions—relishing the encounter with Santa, feeling grateful that I’d been touched again by the magic, and cradling the innocence which, miraculously, had reappeared in me. On this special night, I became a believer. With all my heart, I believe pieces of us that have long been missing can still be found.