When I was a very young child, there was no night in the entire year like Christmas Eve. We had an annual dinner at my grandparents' house. The only lights on in the entire place were Christmas lights and candles. The atmosphere had a hush-secret-whisper. The lace curtains in the dining room took on shadows that were anything but mundane. There was possibly an ice cream cake in the shape of a log. Christmas music would be playing on the big wooden hi-fi stereo. The daylight ferns would shade themselves into large, primitive, otherworldly shadow fronds on the wallpaper.
Magic was in the air. Mystery was palpable. Anything could happen on Christmas Eve: reindeer could fly. Santa would come. Sure, we'd perform the family's gift exchange that night, which would be plenty magical (my sister and I were ritually spoiled every December), but the best part was knowing the best was almost there, within reach, but not yet arrived, let alone passed.
The lights were off and everything carried a dusky, moonlit joy. Family around a table; linens, candles. Christmas would be busy, fun, and long, but Christmas Eve was full of magical suspension, an endless feast of delights and anticipation, with a sensory barrage of ceaseless beauty.
Christmas Eve was better than Christmas, though I would never have admitted it when I was a kid.
We would go home from my grandparent's house, laden with gifts, with the near-certainty that there would be more glittery, paper-wrapped, ribbon-festooned gifts in the morning. My sister and I would change into pajamas. We would, assisted by our parents, leave out a simple junk-food feast for Santa and the reindeer: cookies, Diet Coke or regular (whichever was handy and sometimes with a glass), and Chex Mix (the deer enjoying wheat-y, bran-y sorts of things, we guessed). And then my sister and I would go to bed. I looked out the window, listening to my sister's deep and drowsy breathing. Was that red light in the distance Rudolph's nose or just a plane? It doesn't look like a plane…Santa is coming.
I'd always think I was going to stay awake until the last moment; that I would find out exactly which red light was Rudolph and by which witchy methods it was that Santa entered American houses lacking fireplaces.
Morning would come and I'd be more gifted but none the wiser.
But before morning, always, there was Christmas Eve, and questions and beauty and wonder.
In candlelight, the angel wings in the creche on the piano quivered a bit—plaster giving way to mystery.
In candlelight, colors are – were- deeper, the eyes of one's family pin-lit and distinguished, on alert. The food is darker in candlelight: known entities that are aesthetically different, somehow richer and more fragrant. In candlelight, anything is possible and waiting for Santa mingles with Wise Men from the East arriving in a stable, bearing lavish, spicy things and the one is the other and everything is amazing. Anything is possible.
So when my aunt suggests that if I stare long and hard enough into a candle flame, I will actually see exactly where Santa is at that very moment, I look.
My eyes water but I refuse to blink. The tension is taut and nearly unbearable, but has its own fearsome and spectacular appeal.
Look in the candle. Was that Santa? What does China look like? Was that a pyramid? Is that a sleigh?
The eyes water some more and in the background, the ears that used to be my own hear my mother say, “Stop it; that's so mean” but I'm looking for Santa and I've almost (almost!) got him in my sights.
Wax drips on the tablecloth and it's like being in another universe.
If you're me, you eventually look away (someone blows out the candle, damn it, or turns on a light, ruining everything): you almost saw Santa in the candle flame, just like your aunt told you was possible.
Thirty more seconds would have done it.
But, you'll see Rudolph's nose in the sky outside your window (it could be the water tower or a plane, but I bet it's Rudolph) later that night. You'll see Santa this year; of course you will. It's Christmas Eve and anything is possible.
The candles told (tell) you so.
The love around the table told (tells) you so.
There is nothing in the world like being a kid on Christmas Eve. Unless it's being a human on Christmas Eve.
Light a candle tonight. Perhaps you'll see exactly where Santa is at the moment you are looking.
It will work. You just have to look long enough. Be patient, even if your eyes are burning. You'll see him.
Santa Claus is always there for those who want to see him. Or so I hear.