Why I believe

As you might have noticed, I haven’t Wandered anywhere for a while. That’s because the holidays at a newspaper — and in my big family — tend to get a little out of hand. But I’ll be back in 2012, Wandering all over Massachusetts. In the meantime, I thought I’d share this column, which ran Dec. 23, 2011 in my newspaper, the Sentinel & Enterprise:

By Marisa Donelan

My first memory of believing in Christmas magic happened when I was about 5. We had a huge tree in our family room, decorated to the nines with lights, ornaments and candy canes, under which Santa Claus had left piles of the toys I had asked him to bring.

He’d made a snack of the milk and cookies my brother and I left for him and filled everyone’s stockings, including my parents’. He even gave my brother more than the coal he deserved, but I gave him a pass, because I spied some fun-looking packages with my name on them.

I didn’t notice it at first, but there was something different about the tree.

The candy canes, which were red and white when I’d been sent to bed Christmas Eve, had turned solid white.

My dad gasped in recognition.

“I’ve heard about this! Some of Santa’s reindeer and elves have been licking all the stripes off candy canes,” he said. “Looks like they got ours.”

Oh. My. Goodness.

Whatever doubts I’d had about what happened on Christmas Eve (hadn’t I heard footsteps in the attic, and doesn’t Santa have recognizable handwriting?) were erased and I was filled to the brim with belief, unshakeable and certain, in the unseen.

My dad and me, in 1983

If you listen to analysis by talk-show pundits, you’d think the very notion of December 25 was under attack and in danger of vanishing as completely as our red stripes that morning.

Christmas is just another “Hallmark holiday” now, they’ll tell you. It’s base and commercialized and more about a great deal on a flatscreen than an infant in a manger. Corporations try to stretch out the holiday season by starting it the second the last Halloween candy is distributed.

Adults are filled with stress over mounting credit-card bills, the prospect of visiting relatives, the need to stockpile presents, anger over parking infractions at the mall.

Meanwhile, children are caught in this manufactured War on Christmas, with one out-of-touch side saying the very mention of Christmas violates the nonexistent separation of church and state, it’s exclusionary to those who don’t celebrate, and it dangerously encourages kids to imagine with fondness a jolly trespasser who commands a herd of flying caribou.

The other side is just as bad, wailing and clutching their chests over the fear that public school superintendents and other government officials are on an evil crusade to homogenize childhood beliefs, angrily correcting teenage store clerks with the gall to wish them a happy holiday.

Neither side is right. The minute we started fighting over how to properly believe, how to hold our faith, is the minute we lost sight of Christmas.

Christmas is about kids, it’s about celebrating with your family, practicing old traditions and starting new ones. It should be about selflessness, when we give of our time and our blessings to make others smile. It’s a time to get just a little bit weepy when Mrs. McAllister reunites with Kevin at the end of “Home Alone.”

It’s about, dare I say it, faith. It’s about believing that when you wake up, something good and magical will have happened overnight, propelled by a force you can’t quite wrap your arms around.

It’s gathering with people you love — but don’t always like very much — and believing that the bonds of family and the compelling drive to forgive will win out over past hurt.

It’s believing that even though things are tough right now, next year will be better. It’s looking at a little baby, born to parents who had everything working against them, and knowing he will change the world.

I don’t remember a single gift I got the year of the candy-cane-stripe caper. Or, for that matter, many of the other presents that graced the space under the interior pine trees of my childhood. But I remember that believing feeling my dad gave me, clear as a bell, and it’s lasted much longer than the toys and clothes Santa brought me.

You can find faith anywhere — in the smile of a stranger, in a church, a school, a synagogue, a temple, a good day and in miracles big and small. I found it that morning, when some missing stripes made me believe.

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

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