As I sat before our sparkling Christmas tree this year, I thought back on the difficulty of the last few months. My blog lay fallow since October while we were dealing with a death in the family, the responsibilities of becoming caregivers to an elderly relative, various health problems, work, and of course, the stress of the holidays. This year, holiday dread was replacing the usual pleasure the season brings. Wistfully, I heard my beleaguered family even admit that Christmas wasn’t in their heart this year. I witnessed the dark side of holiday stress at the mall, when I was nearly run over by a crazed-looking man in an old Nissan racing to get to an empty parking space. I even witnessed it in myself, when I exploded in a rage of expletives at another driver who cut me off. Abashed, I realized I was yelling over the cheerful Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, a song that espouses the joyful heart-warming aspects of Christmas. “The hap-happiest season of all,” the song rang out. ‘Yeah right’, I grumbled.
A few days before Christmas, we watched ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, a classic that was as much a part of my childhood as it was my parent’s. In it, Charlie Brown just doesn’t feel the Christmas joy and laments that he doesn’t quite understand what Christmas is all about. As I watched nodding in agreement, I suddenly recalled watching the very same program a long time ago as child, when the anticipation of Christmas held real magic for me – a magic that I lost, but regained again in a different form as an adult. As Linus explains to Charlie Brown that Christmas is about Jesus saving the world from sin (and ultimately from death), the connection between my spirituality as an adult and the magic I once felt at Christmas became clear. Although as an adult, I wouldn’t look to Christianity to save me from the horror of death, the symbolism of this freedom from the fear of death would still hold true.
When I was a little girl, Christmas was just the pinnacle celebration of a world that I believed was filled with magic and mystery and miracles. It wasn’t Jesus, though, that captivated my imagination. It was Jolly ol’ Saint Nick and his cadre of mythical friends which included the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, fairies and angels. Although they were the innocent characters of a child’s imagination, my belief in the magical world they inhabited would have a profound influence on my spirituality as an adult.
My journey from childlike belief in magical beings like Santa Claus to my search for the magic in extraordinary spiritual experiences was not seamless or easy. Like many people trudging through life who grumble at a beautiful snowfall for its inconvinence, dismiss the early summer rose as common, and see the holidays as just another stressful obligation, I had nearly surrendered to cynicism, doubt, and fear.
This is the long story of the magic: how I lost it, and how I found it again as an adult. I hope it resonates with you this holiday season.
Santa Claus, Unicorns and the Fairy Door
Part 1: ‘My Pen-Pal, the Tooth Fairy’
In 1984, I was a skinny, mousy-haired pensive child of six. Observant, but trusting, I had not yet fully reached what scientists call ‘the age of reason’, which besets every child around the age of 7 or 8 and imparts the kind of cynical rationality about the world that we carry with us throughout our lives. Before children develop this rationality, they are open to possibilities that adults have long dismissed. With innocence and wide-eyed wonder, they naturally posses a sincere sort of spirituality about the world. Enraptured parents avail themselves by introducing such magical characters as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy as real yet unseen forces for good.
My parents did the same, and I believed without reservation. Once, after losing a tooth and dutifully placing it under my pillow, I awoke the next morning to the expected pocket change and an unexpected delightful surprise. A personally hand-written note from the tooth fairy! This new development opened an entirely new world for me – a bona fide connection to this mysterious magical world. In my young mind, I believed that all magical creatures – fairies, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, angels and unicorns all existed in the same universe – one that was hidden in the shadows of the ordinary world. My childish scrawl couldn’t likely contain all the questions I had for my newfound pen-pal but I was eager to try. My communication with the tooth fairy eventually subsided when my mother gently discouraged my letters, noting that surely the tooth fairy was very busy collecting teeth from other children. Looking back, it must have pained my poor overworked mother to say this, but understandably my zeal was a bit exhausting.
In my first grade classroom, we wrote letters to Santa. I didn’t expect a reply, but when I received a folded piece of dark red construction paper with the glittery outline of a fireplace on it, I was giddy. The reply wasn’t from the big man himself, of course. I had learned from my tooth fairy experience that magical creatures are far too busy to write to little girls all of the time. It was from one of his elves, though, and that was good enough. Unbeknownst to me at the time, kids at the local high school had taken on this task of writing back to our class posing as the elves in question, and I was lucky enough to get a teenage girl who was very skilled in arts and crafts. My glittery letter earned the envy of my classmates who mostly received awkward crayon drawings with their responses. The elf who replied to me described her day job as a dress-maker, which I found a little disappointing. Getting a dress for Christmas was a terrible thought, and so I secretly hoped that my new communiqué with the dress-maker elf wouldn’t shift Santa’s priorities in terms of my toy requests. I sagely decided not to write back to the dress-maker elf, lest she tell Santa that I wanted a dress for Christmas instead of whatever trendy gadget that I had likely asked for.
During my second grade year in 84-85, we lived in the converted basement apartment of a big old house that was subdivided into two or three additional apartments. Around the back of the big house, there were four or five concrete steps that led down into our subterranean apartment, opening into a small kitchen. My room was in an alcove between the kitchen and the living room; more of a pass-through hallway. It was meager accommodations for a young family, but we would only be there for a little over a year before my parents were able to purchase a real house with a yard. The basement apartment was dark and rather dingy, especially compared to the big, bright apartment we had lived in the year before. With a few small windows at ceiling level and no chimney to speak of, my chief concern was that Santa wouldn’t know where to find me down in that basement. I didn’t tell my parents of my fears. Instead I consulted my friend Becky who lived in the bright, spacious apartment upstairs. Becky just shrugged and said, “Well, Santa doesn’t come here anyway cause I’m Jewish. I get presents from my mamma at Hanukkah.”
My mind reeled. What if Santa thought I was Jewish too? What if he just decided to skip over our entire apartment building? Although I knew that being a Christian was somehow important to the whole present-getting thing, the entire significance of Christmas for me was wrapped up in Santa, not Jesus. Jesus was just a confusing side-story that kept cropping up in between the really important business of Santa’s visit. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t just my childish greed for presents. Santa was the ambassador of the mystical realm, the embodiment of goodness that brought pure love to each child’s living room. He was more than the bearer of presents, he was the bringer of a kind of divine and holy joy of which children were the sole beneficiary. Besides, it was Santa that nibbled the cookies I left for him, not Jesus. It was Santa that stood in my living room, larger than life, placing presents under our tree and filling the stockings. I never saw Santa of course, but evidence of his presence was everywhere at Christmas.
This year, however, I was stuck in this basement apartment where I was sure Santa wouldn’t find me. Now I was seriously regretting not writing back to the dress-maker elf. A dress surely would have been better than nothing at all. So I fretted and worried needlessly until the magical morning arrived and I awoke to all of the beautiful richness of a pile of presents under the tree. My parents didn’t have much, but they wrapped every little baubble and tchotchke individually so it looked like a sheer mountain of presents had magically arrived on Christmas Eve. I was never ever disappointed.
Part 2: ‘Foxfire’
That year, I received a round puzzle in a mustard-colored box. The name on the puzzle read ‘Foxfire’. I’m sure it was an oversight when it was bought by harried parents scrabbling for cheap presents at K-Mart, but this particular puzzle would have a profound effect on me during that time. The image on the box depicted a dark fairy forest, typical of 80’s fantasy imagery popular at the time. I was already obsessed with unicorns, wizards and the like, but something about the image on this box was especially captivating to me.
There was an element of danger to this fairy world. An enchanted tree-cottage with an ornate door and gold-framed windows provides the main focus of the image. I was endlessly speculating what was behind the slightly cracked open door spilling out with purple light. Was it inviting me in or was it only for fairy folk? In the upper window, the dark, secretive robed figure might have been a kindly wizard, an evil elf, or a powerful sorcerer. A portion of the tree root became a forest guardian with mouth agape, two fangs on the bottom hinting at savagery. To the right of the tree, two dragonesque claws peeked out from the dense leaves. The scene was infused by blue-purple mist while a full moon shone clear though the branches. Human and equine fairies appear frozen in mid-flight about the tree, and I could never decide if they were friends or foes of the mysterious occupant inside.
At that age, I still believed that the world contained a hidden sort of magic that could transform the dreary reality of my everyday into the beauty and seduction of the world of the puzzle. I spent long hours staring into the image, willing it to be real and wishing I could close my eyes and step through the tree door into this alternate reality where all mythical beings lived. Santa Claus provided concrete evidence that this mythical world surely existed, even if Santa was just a portion of it. Every adult in my life confirmed Santa’s reality and I had no reason to believe they weren’t being completely truthful. The twining of Santa Claus with religious stories of angels at Christmas only led credence to my young belief that holidays were a celebration of times when this unseen magical world bent toward our own, interacting through the innocent belief of children. I ached to visit the land of angels and Santa and fairies, and the tree door of the puzzle became a symbol of my yearning. If Santa Claus was real, then magic of all kinds must exist, I reasoned. As a painfully shy and sensitive child, the hidden magical world was a cherished respite from the loud, terrifying world of adults, even if I couldn’t directly access it. I knew with every fiber of my being that my everyday reality was a tiny part of a larger unseen whole; a better, more beautiful world filled with love and light, but also a kind of seductive wisdom; even peril for the uninitiated. Adults couldn’t sense it, I knew that plainly.
Part 3: ‘Small Town Blues’
In the summer of 1986, we moved to a real house. My brother had been born a few months earlier, and I was going to be turning 8 years old in the autumn. Life at my new school wasn’t easy. I had trouble fitting in and the other kids teased and bullied me. I still took solace in the magic, but it was getting harder and harder to find. My teachers admonished me to get my head out of the clouds. I became grounded in the inescapable routine of homework, piano lessons and family drama. I escaped into movies like Labyrinth, the Dark Crystal and The Last Unicorn but I was already free-falling into the age of reason. Doubts creeped into my mind, poisoning the innocent belief of my youth.
The day of reckoning came sometime before Christmas that year when I cornered my mother and demanded the truth. I asked her to promise not to lie to me, whatever the answer. She agreed.
“Is there really a Santa Claus?”
I held my breath. Everything I had believed depended on this answer. The tooth fairy had long since abandoned me now that I had gotten most of my adult teeth, and although the Easter Bunny still came around, it was Santa that was the real deal. He was the hinge on my fairy door. Without Santa, everything crumbled.
My mother squirmed and averted her eyes, clearly distressed and caught between her promise not to lie, and the inevitable heartbreak she would cause. With resignation, my mother finally met my eyes and said, “Santa is the spirit of Christmas and parents are like his helpers.”
While it was an honorable try, I wasn’t fooled. My world shattered in that moment, and I let out long heart-rending sobs. The magic never existed. There was no magical world of beauty and light hiding right around the corner that I had long suspected must exist. It was all a lie.
Side note: My mother was so traumatized by the heartbreak she caused me from that admission that she refused to ever admit the truth to my younger brother. Even though we are 31 and 39 years old, our Christmas presents remain “from Santa”.
Something in me changed after that. I became depressed. As a young child, I was convinced that this dark, painful world was simply a part of something bigger and greater, but now I was left bereft of hope.
The year before we moved into our house, I had gotten my first pet from my father – a lovely little orange and white hamster that I named Emily. Though Emily had a good run for a hamster, it was through Emily that I had first learned about death, as many children do. At the time, my mother told me that Emily’s spirit had gone on to Heaven, which I equated to belonging in part to my secret magical world. Emily had traveled through the fairy door. I was contented.
With the magic gone, I now believed that Heaven was just another story that grown-ups told little children whose hamsters had died. Death became a yawning reality – a finality and suddenness that was overwhelming. By the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I perceived the world the way that many adults still do: a competition of survival; a race toward the oblivion of death. He who dies with the most toys, still dies.
Death now became the monster that haunted me at night. It seemed so unfair. Why was there something rather than nothing? Why was I born at all? What was the purpose of it all if life just ended in darkness? The world no longer made sense to me. It just all seemed so pointless and painful.
My childhood wasn’t all gloomy though. As I settled into my new life in our new town, I eventually made friends and spent my summers swimming and going to camp. I went roller-skating and watched popular television shows of the time. I camped in the backyard and climbed the branches of our giant pear tree, sitting for hours among its branches. I read books like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie. Life had its ups and downs but for the most part, I pushed past my fears and sank into the joys of just being a kid.
Christmas time was still a happy occasion but a part of me continued to mourn the loss of belief. Christmas eve still held excitement and anticipation for the gifts I had hoped would be under the tree in the morning, but by then I had permanently entered the realm of rationality, and the blind faith of my childhood had turned into blind materialism.
I tried to find the magic at Church, but stories like Noah and the Ark seemed as ridiculous as a magical fairy that collects teeth from children. I was old enough to understand that adults went to church because it promised a respite from death. The pastor preached that if we accepted Jesus into our hearts, that one day we could sit by the Throne of God and worship Him for all eternity. To a child like me, that sounded eternally boring. Heaven didn’t seem magical, it seemed like a drag.
Later, as a teen, I would ‘try out’ other religions, but ultimately I would come to the same conclusion. Religion was a collection of stories and beliefs written by other humans all wanting the same thing: rescue from their inevitable demise. I decided, dejectedly, that I was to remain agnostic about the whole thing.
Part 4: ‘The Information Age’
In the late 80’s, there was already a thriving alternative spirituality loose in the world, fostered in part by Raymond Moody’s pioneering book on Near-Death Experiences, Life After Life. But in those prehistoric days before the internet, information in a small town was hard to come by, especially for a kid in the sixth grade. For example, if you wanted to know the capital of Zambia for a book report, you couldn’t simply pull out your smart phone and ask. You’d be left wondering until you could track down a set of encyclopedias. My parents did had encyclopedias, but only the volumes for A, B and C – the ones they gave away for free at the supermarket. The only place one could really explore the wisdom of the world at leisure was at a library. Lucky for me, the town library was located right next to my elementary school. It was a tiny one-room building; the collection of books rather paltry by today’s standards. At the time though, it seemed to me like a whole universe of knowledge.
Day by day, I explored the little library. After I tired of the children’s section, I started wandering through the adult stacks. It was there that I found a tiny, almost hidden section of the library labeled ‘Occult’. There were only a few dusty books on the subject, mostly published in the 60’s. But there I read about legends of real ghost stories, and séances conducted in old haunted houses. I read about secret telepathy experiments and people who practiced modern witchcraft. I learned that there was an underground of people who still believed in a kind of magic, though it was quite dark and subversive. I didn’t share my interest in the occult with the librarian or my parents, fearing that it would be dismissed as fantasy or worse, demonic. Yet, I was intrigued and the time spent reading those dusty books formed the first question mark in my mind about what I believed.
Through my preteen years, I occasionally came across books on ESP and practiced with my friends. This is where I discovered that I had a complete lack of ability in that area, much to my chagrin. While I could never actually succeed at the ESP exercises found in these old dog-eared books, I never stopped delighting in trying them out with my peers. We performed séances and bent spoons at sleep-overs. I dabbled in new-age practices and read any book I could find on the subject but I didn’t quite take it seriously until something happened that rocked my world.
When I was about 16, I volunteered to become a junior counselor at a music camp. There, I experienced a spiritual event that would dramatically shift my trajectory. The experience is too long to properly describe in this post, but I did write it all out in the post entitled ‘Jonas and the Haunted Cabin’ linked here. To briefly summarize, my cabin group of 12-year old girls and I connected with the spirit of a little boy named Jonas and over a week of nightly automatic writing, we learned that another world truly did exist, though most of my questions about this world – this afterlife – were frustratingly rebuffed by this child-spirit. The full impact of that experience wouldn’t register for years, but my search for life after death began with that event. I realize now that my frustration with not getting the answers easily was necessary to propel me on this journey. Armed with millions of unanswered questions about this new secret world, I would have to find a better way to discover the truth than write to the tooth fairy, metaphorically speaking. For one, I had already discovered that I was about as psychic as a rock. No Ouija boards moved for me, and by myself, I had zero connection with the ‘other side’ using methods such as automatic writing, astral projection or the like. No, my search for life after death would need to be approached quite differently. And it turned out that a new method of communication and information-gathering was dawning: the Internet.
A series of rapid changes in my life delayed my quest, but by the time I was in my early 20’s, I had chanced upon ‘Seth Speaks’ by Jane Roberts in an old book store. It was simply lying on a pile of books that hadn’t been shelved yet. To this day, I don’t know why it caught my eye or why I reached over and picked up the unknown book, but with the opening lines, I experienced the second seismic shift in my world.
The writings of Jane Robert and Seth became both a foundation and a jumping-off point for my spirituality. Partly, it was the earth-shattering discovery that one could have a spirituality outside of the confines of religion – something that I had never considered at the time. Later, on the internet, I would begin to discover a whole world of evidence that hinted at this greater reality. Santa Claus and unicorns and fairies were a childish fiction of my youth, but the hidden reality of light and wisdom that I so sincerely believed in from my earliest memories was being described by people all over the world who had glimpsed it through near-death experiences, visions of the dying and through mediums. In 1998, the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation began posting NDE experiences on nderf.org and I was a frequent and enthusiastic visitor. I learned about people who were experts in out-of-body experiences, and research by Ian Stevenson into past life memories. Voices of the dead were being heard through radios and paranormal groups started to post images of apparitions (and a whole lot of dust) on the fledging internet. Although I was not privy to experiencing this hidden reality myself, the experiences of thousands of others were powerful evidence that science really didn’t have it all figured out yet. A world that I had long taken for lacking in any mystery at all was actually filled with plenty of unanswered questions, miracles, and scientific anomaly. Maybe the world is filled with magic after all.
Part 5: ‘A World Filled With Miracles’
The spirituality of young children in the ages between their toddlerhood and preschool is natural; inherent, and unique. Parents wise enough to listen closely to their children might discover memories of past lives and recollections of a time before their birth. We adults do recognize the unique sacredness of this special age, but we fill it with the mythologies of our time and culture.
I would never disabuse the idea of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Without these cherished mythical creatures, the magical world I so longed for would have never existed in my childhood and I would not have recognized it when I saw it again years later. Although I have long joined the rational adult world, the child within me would never refuse a glimpse behind the mysterious fairy-door when given the opportunity.
If you can believe the magic still exists, then the world is filled with miracles. It can be found in the brief touch of heaven during a crisis, the visitation of a loved one who has passed in a dream. Children whisper of lives lived in ancient days, and the dying look beyond their grieving family into a bright and beautiful horizon. The magic is alive in a mother’s intuition when her child is in danger; in the soldier who is saved by the vision of a dead comrade who leads him out of peril moments before a shell explodes. It is in the kindness of a stranger at the very moment when your despondency threatens to overtake your life. When the magic happens in your life, will you dismiss it out of hand as mere coincidence, or for that moment believe with all of the innocence of the child you once were?
The rationality of adulthood has served me well to separate true evidence from false hopes, and yet the willingness to believe in the impossible has always been the foundation for my curiosity. There are far too many people in this world who have closed that door so completely that life has become nothing more than a dreary race to oblivion. It is at Christmas that the weariness of the world threatens our childhood exuberance the most. Like Charlie Brown, I had experienced the long darkness of questioning the point of it all. But it is also at Christmas that I am most reminded that the answers were always there, in the innocence of my childhood. It may be the children who are the wisest of us all.
So as the world turns through another year, ask yourself: do you still believe?