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Tis’ the season of contradictions. A baby, born in a stable, king of kings, lord of lords. His mother a virgin. Light in the darkness.
In our time, exhortations to buy our way to happiness and salvation. Free shipping. Final price. Deep discounts.
This year I have avoided most of the frenzy, mainly because I have been too busy to shop. I’ve barely seen a Salvation Army bell ringer. Haven’t sent a single Christmas card. And I haven’t seen Santa anywhere.
Yesterday, standing in line at a department store checkout, I overheard a mother and daughter talking, their arms loaded with tagged clothes.
“Those are going under the tree,” the mother said, pointing to a pair of jeans the girl held.
“Okay,” said the girl. “It’s only five days. And I’ll have more boxes to unwrap.”
The paradox of a surprise that isn’t really a surprise.
In 1963, when I was in fourth grade, I got my first taste of the inevitable disappointment of Christmas. I wished and wished and got what I wanted, but the price was high.
I was in Miss Ramsey’s class where I was comfortably ranked among the smart kids, the spelling bee winner, but intimidated by prissy little Ricky Kelly who always won at math races.
That December followed the November of our President’s assassination in Dallas. Miss Ramsey told us the terrible news, then dismissed us to the restrooms where my best friend, Lynn Fly, and I hugged and cried while a girl named Connie locked eyes with us in the mirror and hissed: “My daddy’ll be glad he’s dead.”
Today, Miss Ramsey hands out pieces of lined paper and tells us we are going to be writing for a contest. Our town’s newspaper will choose and publish the best letters to Santa Claus. I apply my best style to the task — plenty of quotation marks and exclamation points — and ask Santa for a 26-inch red bike.
At home, I tell my parents how much I want Santa to bring me a new bike. I’ve been riding an 18-incher since I first learned to ride, and every afternoon I fly on it to friends’ houses, across vacant lots, over curbs and up dirt construction mounds. But as fashion dictates, I am 9 now, and need a 26-incher.
Christmas inches closer, and on December 23, the newspaper publishes my letter at the top of a page of photo-copied children’s handwriting, bordered by candy canes and holly. I have won the Grand Prize — a 26-inch bicycle.
Daddy picks the bike up at the Western Auto store and brings it home in his station wagon on Dec. 24. It is red and shiny and has a 26-inch frame and silver chrome handlebars. I am awkward riding it, perched so high, having to stretch so far to reach the pedals. I’m not as fast as on my old bike, not as confident or quick, just higher off the ground.
I go to bed that night praying that there will be a surprise for me under the tree on Christmas morning since I’ve already gotten my one wish.
I camp out on my brother’s top bunk and we whisper through the night as we listen to the slow creaking of the attic stairs unfolding, the thumping of boxes and our parents whispering.
“Mama and Daddy are helping Santa,” my brother says. He doesn’t know if I’ve figured it out yet.
Hours later, before the sun comes up, I tiptoe into the living room where soft lamplight bathes the bounty under the Christmas tree. Glassy-eyed dolls still in their boxes for my sisters, their crisp outfits fanned out around them. A new baseball glove for my brother. For me, a note in my mother’s handwriting: “Hope you like the bike. Love, Santa.”
By the time everyone else wakes up, I am composed and resigned. My red bike stands next to the front door, glaring in the morning sunlight. My sisters jump up and down with excitement over their surprises.
I watch them as if from a far distance. I feel older than I did yesterday, and my ears don’t seem to be working. I spend the day playing dolls with them, leaving the bike where it stands.
Years later, my mother framed the winning letter to Santa Claus and gave it to me as a Christmas gift. I laughed at its frilly punctuation and felt a twinge of pride, but also a small jolt of recognition when I saw the heading: Grand Prize: Bicycle. It wasn’t triumph, but the cool stab of inevitability.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.