I don't recall the moment that I stopped believing. I think it was a gradual awakening, rather than a sudden burst of clarification. But I do remember the first Christmas that I didn't believe.
I was the oldest of 5 siblings, all of whom still believed. Our Christmas Eve ritual was that we all five slept in my room, since it was the furthest from the Christmas tree. We were under strict orders to NOT open the bedroom door, under any circumstances, lest Santa look down from his sleigh and see us peeking. If that were to happen, he'd skip right past our house, and there was no way we were gonna risk THAT fate. For years, we all spent that night gazing out my bedroom window, watching the night grow darker above the big pecan tree, its bare branches silhoutted against the East Texas sky. For years, we'd watch and wonder, wishing we knew where Santa was at that very moment, afraid that if we blinked too long or turned away at the wrong second, we'd miss him flying by.
But THAT Christmas, I didn't bother looking out the window. Instead, I sat on my bed in the dark, listening with every bone in my body for clues as to what was happening down the hall. For I knew the truth: Santa had nothing to do with a fat man in a red suit. There was no sleigh. There were no elves. Instead, there was a rickety shed in the backyard with a padlock, a crawlspace in the ceiling of the carport, and the toolbox on the back of Dad's truck. I listened for the squeaky screen door hinges to open and close. I listened for the rustle of wrapping paper. I strained to hear the sounds of screws being tightened, of tape being torn from the dispenser, of hushed whispers between Mom and Dad.
Long after my siblings had fallen asleep, I laid there. And listened. The house was still and quiet. The pecan branches cast dancing shadows on my bedroom wall as they Christmas Waltzed in the winter breeze. The breathing in the room slowed and became background music to the scenarios that played in my head. I couldn't WAIT for morning. It was torture to lie there knowing that Christmas was already spread out across the living room like game pieces on a checkerboard. In this corner, Bobbie's pile. David's loot would be on one end of the couch, Rodney's on the other. Clay's would be on the coffee table, and mine would be piled on the recliner. The gifts from Santa would be unwrapped. The gifts under the tree, which all month had remained a mystery, would be piled up behind the Santa stuff. (Mom never put names on the gifts - instead, she designated a secret wrapping paper design to each of us, and we didn't learn which one was ours until Christmas morning.)
I waited and waited for sunrise, so that at last, we could bound from our prison room and into a world of wonder. I waited for hours. I finally determined that the sun would NEVER rise, and after a good half-hour of self-coaching, I finally worked up the nerve....
to tiptoe from the bed, gingerly stepping over the bodies of my sleeping brothers. I stood at the door, my ear to the hollow wood, until I felt brave enough to turn the handle. Slowly, so slowly. When it would turn no more, I eased the door open. Carefully, so carefully, so as not to make a sound, I crept in to the hallway. The carpet crunched beneath my bare feet. My shiny gown swished with every step. From around the corner, I could see the glow of the Christmas tree lights, and I was drawn to them, moving forward stealthily without taking a breath.
It was my magic time. I'd never experienced it alone before. I'd never seen it so calm and serene. All my life, Christmas morning had been a rush of kids, yelling, laughing, squealing, ripping into paper, climbing over each other, Mona yapping and jumping at all the commotion. But this morning, it was just me. I walked from pile to pile, bending down to see up close, but not daring to touch, everyone's gifts. I was giddy with excitement. I couldn't WAIT. I just couldn't wait.
And so I ran back to my bedroom, threw open the door, flipped on the light, and exclaimed, "SANTA CAME! Y'ALL GET UP, SANTA CAME!"
In a flash, all five of us were flying down the hall. Within a minute, the magic was gone, as the room filled with gales of laughter, squeals of delight, and Mona yapping at all the excitement.
Within a minute and a half, Mom and Dad came stumbling bleary-eyed into the room, rubbing their eyes and trying to make sense of it all.
"What in the WORLD!" exclaimed Mom. "It's 1:30 in the morning!"
"Santa came!", we all exclaimed. I knew at that moment that Mom and Dad couldn't have possibly been in bed for more than an hour and a half. And I suppose I felt a little bit sorry for them, having to wake up so soon and face the day with a mob of greedy, toy-crazed, Christmas-morning-drunk kids. I'm sure I felt a tinge of guilt for being the cause of it all, but only a tinge. It was magical.
I knew, but no one else did, what Christmas morning looked like in quiet stillness. And 26 years later, that magic time is still my favorite part of Christmas day.