I’m going to tell you a story about Christmas magic, not some hokey Hallmark Channel magic, but the real deal. This magic happened every year when I was a kid and it is so real to me that I can still feel the excitement every time I tell the story.

The Christmas season didn’t start after Thanksgiving like it does now. The Christmas season started on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, when our stockings were hung up so that St. Nicholas could put an apple in the toe, a small toy in the foot, an orange in the heel, and fill the leg of the stocking with candy. That was the kick-off to the magic that would come later.

On Christmas Eve, my dad would go out into the woods with my brother-in-law, Bing, who was a lumberjack, and get our tree – always a Scotch pine. Bing would drive my dad out to the woods where he had scouted a few choice trees and marked them as possibilities. My dad would make the final choice after circling each tree several times to see which was the most symmetrical. Bing would cut it down and rope it to the top of my dad’s car for the trip to our house.

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All of us kids would be waiting to hear my dad’s car come down the driveway with the tree. When it arrived, we would meet him at the door and the tree would be shaken to get the snow off its branches and carried in the front door, more welcome than any other guest that arrived that day.

We got right to work, putting the tree in the stand and putting the lights on per my father’s exacting instructions. It was important to get it just right. The tree had to be turned several times to determine which was its best side, and then the lights had to be evenly spaced, top to bottom and front to back. No artist would have been more careful posing a subject for a portrait than my dad was with a Christmas tree. Once everything looked good, the floor underneath was swept of needles and snow. The tree’s lights were turned on, final adjustments were made, approvals granted, and that was it.

OK, I get it. That doesn’t sound very magical, but magic requires ceremony and ritual. If it happens all at once, it’s just a trick. It’s not lasting. Without anticipation, magic doesn’t happen. So bear with me.

The evening would progress as usual – watching Christmas movies and specials. This was when there was only network TV, so there was no choice of programming. We lived in a rural area, so we only were able to receive two and a half channels. (By a half, I mean that we could only receive the third channel at night and only some of the time.) We would sneak out to catch a glimpse of the tree every once in a while, but were hastily called back in and told not to touch it. At 9:00, we were put to bed so that my brother and my parents could get ready for midnight mass. My brother was an altar boy and always served midnight mass.

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It was almost impossible to sleep. After we heard my parents’ car leave for the church, we would all get up and look out our bedroom window to see if we could spot Santa Claus. I can remember looking out the window one Christmas Eve in particular when the moon was full, and it had snowed all day. It was so bright out and the snow was so cold and fresh that it looked like diamonds had been scattered across a pure white velvet cloth. The glitter of the snow was matched only by the glistening of the stars in the sky. We lived pretty far out in the country, so there were no streetlights – not even a light from a neighbor’s house – to light the night sky. The sky was a deep endless black against which the stars shone like lanterns. We always hoped to see Santa and his reindeer silhouetted against the moon as we had seen in storybooks, but he was too clever for that.

Eventually, even sights like this were not enough to keep us awake. Our bedroom was always cold and there was only so much time we were willing to stare out the cold window before we were drawn back to the warmth of our beds and the deep sleep that happens when an overexcited child finally stops moving.

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In the morning we would wake up at first light and creep down the stairs to where the Christmas tree was and catch sight of the magic that had taken place overnight. Santa Claus had decorated the tree with hundreds of ornaments! There was so much tinsel it made you squint your eyes, and there were candy canes all over the tree! And under that magnificent tree were more presents that we had ever seen in one place. It took our breath away. After we stared our fill and stared some more, we ran upstairs to get our parents out of bed. We could look our fill at the tree and the presents, but we knew that we had to get our parents downstairs before a single present was opened.

So, we clattered back up the stairs yelling, “Santa Claus was here!!! Come and see!” again and again, knocking frantically at their door so that they could see the amazing sight that we had just seen. I could never figure out why my parents didn’t immediately throw open their door and bound down the steps. Why would anyone bother to take the time to put on a bathrobe and slippers when they could just run down the stairs and see what Santa Claus had done? He didn’t just bring presents to our house. He decorated the tree too! Other families may have gotten their presents delivered by Santa, but we got the real deal – we got magic.