I held my breath and pushed “PLAY” on the clunky, black and silver cassette recorder.
It was Christmas morning, and I was on the verge of a discovery that would squelch a part of my childhood I could never reclaim.
As a kid, I was a keen enthusiast of Nancy Drew, whose intuition, cleverness, and magical gift for having at least nine lives inspired me. I was thirsty for a mystery—any mystery—to solve; I spent countless hours snooping, eavesdropping, and generally searching for any chance to expose misconduct, especially when committed by my brother.
I was at least as keen on Santa Claus. Unlike my brother (let’s see if he really reads my blog!), I did EVERYTHING right—ALL year—to stay off Santa’s “naughty” list. And for weeks before Christmas, I worked tirelessly on specific, detailed wish lists to relieve him of any guesswork when preparing my share of the gifts. On Christmas Eve, I took great care to leave out a selection of snacks to nourish him when he stopped at our house in the middle of his impossibly long journey.
It was exactly that impossibility, in fact, that generated some pretty tough questions for my parents in my seventh year.
How does he hit all those homes in one night?
How does he pack all of those gifts into his sleigh?
Why doesn’t he leave black footprints if he lands in the fireplace?
The questions kindled doubts, leaving me to wonder if a conspiracy was at play. Who else would know exactly what I want for Christmas? Who else could make those gifts appear under the tree on Christmas morning?
Santa had never given me any other reason to suspect he wasn’t who he claimed to be. But how many reasons did I need?
That Christmas Eve, after my cookies and note were neatly arranged on a plate on the mantle, I concealed a cassette recorder under the green armchair near the fireplace: close enough so that it would pick up any unusual sounds—or familiar voices. After pressing “PLAY” and the tiny orange “RECORD” button together, and with pounding heart and excitement so detectable I feared it would give me away, I raced up the stairs two at a time to my bedroom.
Once in bed, I strained to listen for any suspicious noises, voices, hoofbeats, or sleigh bells. I must have strained myself into exhaustion, because the next thing I knew, the sun was flooding my eyes. Christmas morning! After a quick, visual confirmation that my parents’ door was tightly closed, I crept slowly down each step to the family room, pausing to listen for any stirring from upstairs. Once I had alighted the last step, I dove for the green armchair. Patting the floor under it, my shaking hand located the recorder and dragged it out. I shielded my eyes from the piles of gifts and the empty plate on the mantle and sprinted back up the stairs with the recorder cradled in my arm like a football player heading for the end zone.
When I was safely inside my bedroom with the door locked, I rewound the tape. I held my breath as I pushed “PLAY” on that old, black and silver tape recorder, then leaned in close to hear what secrets it would reveal.
A robust voice projected from the recorder. A familiar voice.
“Ho, ho ho! Merrrrrrrrry Christmas! Mmmmmm….these cookies are JUST what I need tonight! Now let’s see what I have for Elena Suzanne and Andrew Meads…”
The voice was unmistakable. It was my father’s. Turns out the tape recorder hadn’t been as well concealed as I thought.
The satisfaction of having solved my first “real” mystery was engulfed by an unexpected, overwhelming wave of grief and regret. In an early flash of maturity, my seven-year-old self understood immediately the devastating consequence of my success; that no matter how many wish lists I created, how many Christmas carols I sang, or how many cookies I baked from that day forward, Santa Claus would not come back to life, and that part of my childhood would never be reclaimed. It was a bitter lesson, and the fact that I had imposed it on myself was especially crushing.
I’ve lived with this self-inflicted disappointment for lo these many decades. This year, I rediscovered some of the wonder I lost the year I last believed while simultaneously soothing my pounding regret. As a writer for Holiday CareLetters, St. Nick spoke to me and through me as I composed letters in his voice to children with critical illnesses and their siblings. Holiday CareLetters is among the programs sponsored by There With Care, an organization that provides support to families and children in medical crisis. Learn more about There With Care, including how you can get involved, here.
From the archives: The original version of this piece was written for the Colorado Writing Project 2012.