Not a tree, not a decoration, not a colored bulb was visible in our house as we were tucked into bed at seven on Christmas Eve, an unnaturally early lights-out which my parents enforced rigorously on every night of the year, not just that one. Even when it was high summer and it didn't really even get fully dark until almost ten, the little Cahills were ordered beneath the sheets at seven, to lie there sweating resentfully, watching the golden daylight stream through the windows and listening to the happy sounds of the other kids in the neighborhood playing along its sidewalks and alleys before we drifted off to sleep.
On Christmas Eve alone was this strict curfew worth it. While we slept my mother and father would buy a tree at least nine feet tall, haul it inside, cover it with a thousand ornaments, stick wreaths, ribbons, plastic Santas and reindeer in every cranny of our tiny house, put a pile of presents the size of our station wagon under the tree, assemble at least one bicycle and in general transform our home, bare when we went to sleep, into a Christmas playland.
It was magic. We would stand goggle-eyed at the top of the steps when we woke long before dawn for a silent moment, in awe not only of what Santa had wrought in our home, but in respect of his abilities to transform every other household in the world in the same manner, before rushing down the stairs to begin ripping into our presents, an orgy of paper-lust that lasted maybe forty minutes.
After being up all night, my father would sip beer contentedly in the kitchen while my mother toiled all day at making the Christmas feast. Maybe that's why she was the one who decided to enlighten me, the year I was six.
"You know there's no Santa Claus, right?" she said. "Your father and I do it all. This year you're going to help."
I knew no such thing. While I took solace in the maturity with which I had been gifted, and the pleasure of keeping a secret from my younger brothers and sisters, I had not been ready to reconsider my entire worldview regarding Santa. Sure, there were a couple of Santa-atheists in my first grade class, kids who whispered that there was no such being, but I had avoided them and their beliefs. Hadn't I seen the man's work every year for as long as I could remember?
I realized instantly that the Easter bunny was equally mythical. The world's population of fairies, which in those innocent times was limited to two varieties—Tooth and Sugarplum—had been cut in half. I did my job spreading presents and hanging decorations in a daze on that first non-magical Christmas, not wanting to dwell on my inklings of what a world without Santa meant; a much drearier one, in which you could end up uncared for and alone if you weren't careful, and maybe even if you were. A random and chaotic place, where the only sure rule for predicting your future is that anything that ever happened to anybody else could someday happen to you.
A world where it takes a year's worth of myth and money to have one single day when it seems comfortable and sure and peaceful.
And well worth the effort. Merry Christmas to all.