“You know something, Virginia?” my mom asks, as we sit together on the leather couch, Sugar Bear snuggled between us, fingers curled around mugs of morning-after-Christmas coffee.
“Hmmm?” I ask, balancing my cup between crisscrossed legs, trying to keep heavily-creamed coffee from sloshing onto my keyboard. I look up from the column-in-progress blinking at me from the screen on my lap.
“Every single snowflake is absolutely different,” my mom says. “Did you know that?”
She lifts her hand toward the sugary wonderland wrapped by wide windows — snow like muffin tops swelling on lantern heads; snow like sugar icing piling, crystallizing over cobblestone cookies; snow like daisies blooming on bare branches.
“Each one of those,” she says, “is distinct and not like any other snowflake. Every snowflake has the most intricate design, that is only its own.”
We sit very quietly and smile into the magic of that. Merlin purrs, Rosie snuffles, and snow puffs and sparkles outside.
Even as the plaid circular rug that fans out from beneath the blinking Christmas tree sits bare except for a banquet of pine needles — the stacks of presents long since fervently uncovered, delightfully discovered and newly, dearly beloved — I know the two of us just opened the best Christmas gift of all.
The day after Christmas, Christmas comes fully.
Of course I already knew each snowflake is unique, but when was the last time I got to revel fully, deeply, dreamily in that divine insight with someone I love? It’s not about novel facts or new things, but a renewed sense of wonder.
Christmas came slowly this year because, for too many days, I expected Christmas to be something that comes to me. I kept thinking of Christmas as some magician who would arrive soon enough, signifying her magic to me in soft molasses cookies and faux silver beards and slowly filling stockings lined up above the blazing wood smoke fire.
But come as all the Christmas cheer may, none of its bright colors or sweet flavors or flashing lights seemed to fill me with the feeling Christmas ought to bring.
It was Virginia who reminded me that Christmas is not something you wait for to come to you, but something you come to — not something bought, nor brought, but something to which your whole heart you must bring.
On Christmas morning, I ripped open a rectangle of red reindeer wrapping to uncover the round, glowing face of a little redheaded girl staring up at me. I thanked my mother for the gift, stroking the book’s smooth, cool cover, and proceeded to read the whole of Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus before opening any other presents.
It is a true story. In 1897, an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking that he tell her the truth: Is there a Santa Claus? The (initially anonymous) reply of the editor, Francis Church, eventually became the most reprinted newspaper editorial, translated into dozens of languages and enduringly reveled in by readers all over the world wishing to remember what Christmas is really about. (I guess I’m not the only one who, some seasons, needs a reminder!)
Might I suggest a quick Google search of “full editorial response, Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus” — or a jaunt to your local bookstore for the children’s book, in which the full letter is printed — so you can enjoy the entirety of this timeless, eloquent and moving Christmas message. But I will include just this excerpt, here:
“Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished ... Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see ... Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”
Sure, Virginia asked and Church wrote about Santa Claus, but we might also replace “Santa Claus” with “Christmas,” or Christmas spirit.
The realness of Christmas is not in the presents, prime ribs, or powdered sugar cookies we see. Christmas is in the magic we feel at allowing ourselves to come under the holy spell of the spiritual, leaving behind the insistent pull of the material, for one divine slice of the season. Christmas is about believing there is good in ourselves and in the world, and that such goodness is worth spreading, for no purpose beyond goodness itself.
I cannot see (without intense magnification) the exceptional expression of each snowflake. I cannot see the spirit of Christmas no matter how hard and far I search. And yet, when I allow the snowflake — and the spirit — to come to life not before my eyes, but within my heart and soul, I am filled with a feeling of wonder and love and yes, yes, magic! That, I know, can only mean one thing: Christmastime.