New York City winters are sometimes so unseasonably warm that one holiday week, tree sellers wore shorts while hot chocolate vendors lost their shirts. As I browsed the balsam and cedar potpourri then, absentmindedly humming along to “Jingle Bells,” I recalled the year I took my then four-year-old daughter, Fay, to visit Santa in Macy’s Herald Square.
That year, Mother Nature and Father Christmas were getting along just swell. It was reindeer-cold with sleigh-lifting winds when we ran for the bus, which then sloshed exasperatingly slowly through slush and midtown traffic.
I braced for a barrage of “are-we-there-yets?” but to my surprise, none came. An hour later, we joined the crowds pressing past bell-ringing Santas and enjoyed whiffs of aromatic steam from pushcarts roasting chestnuts until we revolved into the National Historic Landmark that is Macy’s.
We dashed past jewelry, perfume, handbags and watches to take the century-old, wooden escalator up to Santaland. Eight floors later, to music from The Nutcracker, we entered the dark “Enchanted Forest.” It was illuminated by its lifelike inhabitants: princes and princesses, witches and hunters, all going about their wintry business so realistically that I instantly suspended disbelief.
Believing in a Real North Pole Visit
At the end of this confection of a waiting line, we approached Santa’s receiving room, where a tactful elf discreetly inquired if I wanted to purchase photos. My suspended disbelief commenced descent for a landing, but my daughter recited her Christmas list unaware of the missed photo opportunity, while Santa listened to her attentively. The elf escorted us out, simultaneously easing my daughter’s transition and preventing us from accidentally walking in on any of three other Santas in their receiving rooms.
Mission accomplished, we took the wooden escalator back down, detouring on the sixth floor so I could find a shower curtain. When we got home, I was not surprised that my daughter bee-lined to the phone. I expected her to tell her friends she saw Santa Claus. However, as I overheard her say, “I went to the North Pole today. It had Santa Claus and it had shower curtains,” I stood stock-still.
How had I missed it?
I forgot that she wasn’t suspending disbelief, turning it on and off like I was. She was in. All the way in. She sat patiently on the bus because she expected a long journey to the North Pole. She saw Santa’s helpers outside, ringing bells, and inside, displaying the vast riches of Santa’s workshop. She saw Santa’s helper give me a shower curtain; since Macy’s had no check-out counters, she didn’t notice me paying. She rode a moving staircase to Santa’s estate grounds where welcoming elves ushered her into his home. If seeing is believing, she had grounds to believe.
I wish I could still select what she sees. Some people would not select Santaland, excluding it as commercialization. I don’t see it that way, because my daughter didn’t see it that way. She didn’t even think she was in a store.
As far as she was concerned, Macy’s entire inventory was headed for Santa’s sled. A legendary figure was actually sitting there and listening to her tell him what she wanted. Long after Santa Claus sleighed out of her consciousness, she could keep, free of charge, whatever she wanted to, of the real generosity, kindness and imagination she saw in a spectacular display of story, art, acting — and corporate social responsibility — that day. And so could I.
Searching for Lost Belief
I’m mulling this all over as I sip my fair trade, organic tea from a reusable cup, frankly enjoying record-breaking warm weather which I fully believe is evidence of climate change. I’m humming along, but I’m starting to suspect I should be singing a different tune.
If my daughter was a child today, I could not take her to Macy’s by any route without passing a parade of squalor, a roaming citizenry of homeless outcasts. I might pretend not to see them, but I would have had to blindfold my daughter. I wonder: Do we really believe what we tell our children about charity and good will any more than we believe in Santa Claus and flying reindeer?
The only Miracle on 34th Street today is that Macy’s can still produce the Thanksgiving Day Parade and Santaland and manage to remain in business in the midst of tawdry storefronts with cardboard Santas, flashing lights and knock-off items.
But it does. I search Macy’s online. I find the word “Believe,” in enormous, luminous script, shining, almost defiantly, across Macy’s Beaux-Arts façade. I look at that image a long time.
I expected to enjoy reminiscing one day about our trip to Santaland. I never expected I’d need to go back, in search of whatever may have fallen off the sled, for myself.
I look at the Believe image some more. It’s remarkably simple, just the one word. I make it my screen saver.
When my daughter was small, and I was instilling in her a code to live by, I had to be a bright and shining example of that code myself. Now, I can relax. I can sit all this — the climate change, the homelessness — out. I’ve done my share. Sit back and relax.
I don’t feel relaxed.
Something falls off the sled. I unwrap it. It’s a question: Which way did you like yourself better?
I stare back at the Believe sign. I stare at it until I’m back in. All the way in.
(This story originally ran in December 2018.)
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