We want less for ourselves, but buy more for others. We think of it as family time, but shopping at the supermarket, we see angry, bleary-eyed mothers in red holiday sweatshirts, dragging tearful toddlers along behind them, ignoring their pleas for brightly packaged baubles.
No matter how perfectly we plan, there is an inevitable letdown that accompanies the celebration of Christmas. It's never quite as great or fun or meaningful or beautiful as we want it to be, yet every year we try harder to make it so.
And then there's the Santa lesson, sometimes hardest of all to accept.
It is 1963. I am in fourth grade, Miss Ramsey's class. I have hit my stride in academic terms -- I'm a finalist in the schoolwide spelling bee and I love math races at the huge blackboard, except when I'm up against Ricky Kelly because he psyches me out by tapping on the board with the tip of his piece of white chalk.
My true joy, though, lies beyond the classroom, on the playground. At age 9, I still burst out the heavy steel double doors when the bell rings for recess and run, run, run -- around the flagpole, in races against anyone who's game, through the twirling jump rope, around the perimeter of the kickball field. My friends and I are like land-bound birds, roadrunners, our legs churning across the school grounds for the duration of blessed recess.
It is December, following the November of our President's assassination in Dallas. On that day, just two weeks ago, Miss Ramsey told us the terrible news, then dismissed us to the restrooms where my best friend, Lynn Fly, and I hugged and cried while a prissy girl named Connie primped in the mirror and hissed through her teeth: "My daddy'll be glad he's dead."
Today, Miss Ramsey hands out pieces of lined paper and tells us all we are going to be writing for a contest. Our town's newspaper will choose and publish the best letter to Santa Claus. I apply my best style to the task -- plenty of quotes and exclamation points -- and ask Santa for a 26-inch red bike.
At home, I tell my parents how much I want Santa to bring me a new bike. I've been riding a smaller one since I first learned to ride at age 6, and every afternoon I fly on it to friend's houses, across vacant lots, over curbs and up dirt construction mounds. But as fashion dictates, I am 9 now, and need a 26-incher.
Christmas inches closer, and two days before Christmas the local newspaper publishes my letter at the top of a page of photo-copied children's handwriting, bordered by candy canes and holly. I have won the Grand Prize -- a 26-inch bicycle. My parents tell me we can pick up the bike the next day. I am elated to have won the contest, but strangely sobered by the prospect of actually seeing the bicycle.
My dad brings it home on Dec. 24. It is red and shiny and has a 26-inch frame, my exact specifications. I am awkward riding it, having to stretch my legs so far, perched so high. I'm not as fast as on my old bike, not as confident or quick.
That night, I ask my mother if there really is a Santa Claus. "If you believe, then there is," she says. "Like Jesus?" I ask. "Not exactly," she says.
I go to bed that night praying to Santa Claus that there will be a surprise for me on Christmas morning since I've already got my one wish, a red bike.
I camp out on my brother's top bunk and we whisper through the night as we listen to the slow creaking of the attic stairs, the thumping of boxes.
"Mama and Daddy are helping Santa," my brother tells me.
Hours later, my eyes stinging from staying awake so long, before the sun comes up I tiptoe into the living room where soft lamplight bathes the bounty under the Christmas tree. Glassy-eyed dolls still in their boxes for my sisters, their crisp outfits fanned out around them. A train for my brother. For me, a pair of pajamas and a note: "Hope you like the bike. Love, Santa."
By the time everyone else wakes up, I am composed and resigned. My red bike stands next to the front door, glaring in the morning sunlight. I help my mother fix breakfast while my sisters play with their dolls and the train whirs around the track.
"I believe," I tell myself as I whip the eggs. "I believe," just like Suzie in Miracle on 34th Street, "I believe."