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Growing up believing

Roger Marolt

I remember when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. It was 1976, the year it didn’t snow in Aspen.Day after day the town woke to deep blue skies that you only see on the shortest days of winter when the sun is low in the sky and there is little moisture in the air. They were the kind of days you normally looked forward to as a reprieve from winter storms, but the months-long string of them that year left folks nervous, if not scared. The air was strangely calm and frigid. No one had ever seen anything like it. The country was in the midst of the Cold War and folks talked about the onset of nuclear winter and global cooling. The clear, dark skies made me think that the cerulean veil, which shields us from seeing what we can’t comprehend until after the sun has set and we are oblivious in the comforts of our homes, was wearing thin. In the mid-’70s, we didn’t have extensive snowmaking and there weren’t many second-home owners around. Most Aspenites relied on skiing and tourism for their livings. The town was empty. I was worried.I was 14 years old and I, along with everything around me, was changing. For the first time in my life I didn’t always know who I was. Much of the time I felt more out of place than the brown and lifeless mountains surrounding my town in December. Gone was the simple beauty of clean, pure snow. For quite some time before then, I had a growing feeling that Santa Claus was only a myth. Now, on the threshold of adulthood, I didn’t believe in him. But I wanted to. In that year of change, fear and things unknown, I was desperate for the familiar, even if it existed only as symbol of my childhood.All hopes of that were shattered one afternoon when I came home from school to find my father putting up the Christmas tree while my mother worked on dinner. She caught the dismayed look on my face when I walked in the door to find the unexpected scene unfolding in the living room. From her eyes, I knew she had been anticipating my sensitivity. For my entire life, it had been the tradition in our house for Santa Claus to bring the tree in the late hours of Christmas Eve. While we dreamt, he trimmed it. In the morning, we woke to the scent of its cool, winter freshness drifting into our bedrooms, mingling with our dreams. My sister would roust us and we would descend to the living room to find it in full, glowing splendor. If there is such a thing as a miracle in a child’s life, this was it for me. “We thought you kids might like to decorate the tree yourselves this year, before Christmas,” my mother said apologetically to my crestfallen stare. So, this was it. Though I had heard it everywhere else, now my parents were telling me too. I could no longer believe in Saint Nick, even to myself. Visions of my waning youth were blurred with the moisture accumulating in my eyes. As only a son can tell, I knew that the tears rolling down my cheeks were breaking my mother’s heart. Even so, I couldn’t stop them. She was feeling that she had let me down. But, she hadn’t. The world and all of nature had let me down. Everything was different. As much as I wanted to tell her this, I couldn’t. In my teenage awkwardness there were no words available. I wanted her to hug me like when I was a little boy. Instead of giving her the chance, I ran off to my room to be alone.I sat there in darkness for what seemed a long time, wondering why growing up had to be so painful. Eventually my father knocked on the door and asked to come in. I felt like being obstinate, but I desperately wanted him to stay. I said nothing.He sat down next to me. “This doesn’t mean that Santa Claus isn’t real, you know.”I looked at him, amazed at how well he knew me. He proceeded to tell me the story of Saint Nicholas.There is much legend intertwined with his history. What we know for certain, though, is that he lived during the fourth century in Myra, which is now Turkey. His parents died when he was young and he inherited a vast fortune. He devoted the rest of his life to using his wealth to help those less fortunate, especially children. His generous life eventually led him to ordination and he became a bishop.He never sought acclaim for his good deeds and assisted people anonymously when possible. Legend has it that he would travel through the countryside at night delivering money and gifts to those in need while they slept.Extremely popular throughout Europe, he is the patron saint to many including seafarers, brides, scholars and, most of all, children.These facts are not what my father told me about Saint Nicholas. I researched this history myself. Besides, that wasn’t the part of his talk that stayed with me for all of these years anyway.What I remember him saying is that Saint Nicholas is real. He is the spirit who fills parents’ hearts and souls with love for their children, especially on Christmas. He makes us all want to give to each other, as we have received the greatest gift of love on the day of Christ’s birth. “You know,” he said to me. “As you get older, you are going to discover that a lot of things in this world are different from the way you thought they were. That doesn’t mean that they are not real or true; just different.”That’s what it is like with Santa Claus. He’s just not exactly the way you thought he is. He’ll bring the magic of Christmas this year just like he has every other year, though. You’ll see.” He rubbed his hand across my hair and smiled. That look let me know that everything was going to be OK.He was right too. It never did snow much that winter, the Cold War continued on for another decade, and sometimes I still struggle with the responsibilities of being a man. Yet, the yearning for peace and love has endured throughout the world. Christmas came that year with all of the joy and magnificence of years past. And it has come every year since. And you know what? I still believe. Merry Christmas! Roger Marolt will be up late tonight at roger@maroltllp.com.