Tonight is Christmas Eve. The cat is curled up at the foot of the bed, the gas fireplace heats the room and I have just climbed into bed. As a child and during my early adulthood, my Christmas Eves were spent doing all those last minute tasks before the big day. I only remember bits and pieces of those times. It was a tapestry of colors, smells, family members gathered together in Aunt Florence’s dining room to play poker or in Aunt Doris’s living room eating the cakes and pies she and my mother had been baking all day. But of the Christmases I have lived, one stands out, as if it were yesterday, as the Christmas when Magic became a permanent fixture in my life.
I was four and a half, we were still living in Prospect Village, a small ghetto enclave of row houses, a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks. The freight trains would pass by three or four times a day and I would run out of the house and watch until the black smoke disappeared or mom yelled for me to come back inside.
It was Christmas, 1952. My brother and I were sneaking down the stairs to see if Santa had come. From the nightlight on the table, we could see the floor covered with railroad tracks and train cars and signs and cattle and so many things. We shrieked with surprise and woke up our parents who then came downstairs to join us.
I didn’t know you could ask for things from Santa. I thought he just gave toys to good little boys and girls. I didn’t know the train set that overflowed on the living room floor was for my brother. I thought Santa left it for me. He must have known how much I loved trains.
“Your train is over there,” my mom said.
My eyes had been so fascinated by the lights, the whistles, the sounds of the engine that I had not taken my eyes off the train since I had come down the stairs. I started to look, expecting to see something similar to my brother’s train. My eyes were already lit with anticipation when I turned to see a small circle of tracks, no more then two feet in diameter on top of which sat a engine and two cars. There was no cardboard tunnel made to look like a mountain and covered with fake grass. I did not have a cattle car where the cows automatically load themselves. There were no plastic homes complete with plastic landscaping. If Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree had been around in 1952, this would have been the train going around it. But it was a train and it was mine.
My mother brought over a plastic tree and a red and green sign and placed them inside my circle while I watched my train go around its tracks. Its headlight coming toward me then turning away from me. I took the red sign and placed it on the outside of the track and when the train reached it, my train stopped. Then I turned the sigh around so it’s green side was facing the train and the train continued around the tracks. I did this three or four times, each time stopping the train with the red side and starting the train with the green side. My journey was beginning.
When I tried to share this occurrence with my parents and brother, he called me stupid and mom said it was just my imagination. Naturally my train wouldn’t stop and go while they were watching. They had stopped believing in magic, but since that moment, I never have.
In his book, The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg ends with these words, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”
Merry Christmas and Magic to All!