When you were a kid, December was your favorite month. It was the best month of all. There was magic in the air in December. You knew this because there were hundreds of cheesy television advertisements telling you about “the magic of Christmas.”
Which was easy to believe because when you’re a kid everything is magic. Your entire life is about fairytales, cowboys, international spies, firing cap guns, or galloping around on a stick-horsey.
But one day you got older and realized you were mistaken about the magic of life. Real life was about a lot more than stick-horseys.
Real life was rough. Real life was having your tonsils ripped out with medieval salad tongs by a family doctor who smelled like Old Spice and Lucky Strikes.
Also, real life was about the monkey bars, a good game of tag, or kisses from girls.
In grade school, you weren’t sure how life suddenly became about kissing girls, but everyone was getting kisses, so you thought, “Hey, why not?”
Then something went wrong. Somehow you ended up with not just one, but TWO girlfriends—Katie and Gladys.
You’d get a kiss from Katie in the morning, and one from Gladys in the afternoon. Soon, the girls got into a fight, with bloody noses and everything. This would be the only time in your life when two girls would ever fight over you. So you tried very hard to enjoy the magic of it.
Time marched forward. Eventually, you learned that life was not about kisses, but trees. Big ones, tall ones with lots of limbs. You climbed these trees, one at a time. Until one day you were picking mulberries from one and you fell.
You landed on your shoulder. You were certain it was broken, but your mother declared that it was not. Which was a rotten deal because when Fred Thompson broke his arm he lived like the king of Siam for weeks. His mom gave him all the ice cream he could eat.
But, you soon discovered that life was not about ice cream, but really about:
Yes, all the kids were wearing cool shoes. You were almost in middle school and you wanted to fit in. You were tired of being a dumb dork in stupid loafers. Converse All-Star shoes were what you needed.
Looking back, you still laugh about this. All-Stars are not “hip” shoes. In fact, they are the very same shoes your grandparents wore a million years ago when they were shooting marbles on trolley cars during the Revolutionary War.
But your mother actually bought you a pair. Suddenly, you were SO COOL! And this is what life was about. Shoes. And…
Jokes! Yes! That’s what life was about! You would sit in the cafeteria with your friends, and you would tell new jokes. And your buddies would die laughing.
You never knew you were funny before. But in middle school, apparently you WERE! Your pals were wheezing from laughter. And when you did your signature move—shooting lima beans from your nose—you got standing ovations. So the magic of life was about jokes.
Until it wasn’t.
That was the horrible year your father did something stupid. Something fatal. You’ve written about his death enough. There’s no need hashing over it here.
But you realized immediately that your life was no longer about and lima beans flying from your nasal passages.
At your father’s funeral, your pals walked through a reception line wearing neckties. One of your teachers was crying. She kissed your hair, and told you that if you ever needed anything to call her.
And now you truly knew what life was about. This was real. Life was unkind. It was not happy.
You, your mother, and your baby sister were left to pick up the pieces. And life would never again be about climbing trees, or jokes, or stick-horseys. It was about surviving, and there wasn’t any magic in it.
October came, and it was lonely. November came, and Thanksgiving was the worst day of your life.
You hadn’t heard from your pals in forever. Because people were afraid of you. It was like you smelled bad or something. Later you would learn that suicide was not a word people said in those days.
Then came December. You were dreading Christmas. You knew it would be the most pathetic holiday in the history of the world. And you just wanted it to go away. But it didn’t.
Christmas morning came with a sunrise. And a knock on the door.
People started arriving on your porch. Unannounced. They weren’t invited, they just showed up. One by one. And they were bringing things. Hams, casseroles, bottles of cider.
Whole families arrived dressed in ugly sweaters and pleated khakis because those were the kinds of dumb outfits people wore back then.
Pretty soon, your house was filled with them. With music. And laughing. And food. And your mother was surrounded by people who were constantly refilling her glass. And nobody was crying.
You had so much fun, even in the midst of hell, that it did something to you. And you knew then—even though it has taken a long time to understand—that life is not about cowboys, cap guns, playing tag, or kissing. It’s not about ice cream, or shoes, or winning a prize, or even happiness.
I think it’s about this. Right here. Right now. Whatever this is. About people. And love. And I believe if you mix it all together, you’ll see real magic.
And every December I think about that.