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After years of cynicism, Christmas magic returns

Christmas used to be my favorite holiday.

Until it wasn’t.

I can’t pinpoint exactly how or when I descended into a level of cynicism rivaling even the grumpiest of grumps. My childhood revolved around excitement for the holidays; I loved the decorations, the traditions, the anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning, the endless supply of sugar cookies popping out of our oven every 10 minutes. (Confession: I’d listen to Christmas music before Halloween because I felt cheated that I could only hear it for a month until it was gone.)

It’s not to say every year was great. Some were very hard on my parents who tried to give and do as much as they could. Then there was the year I decided shortly before Christmas that maybe I didn’t want to attend Ole Miss after all, which made opening gifts — all of which were branded in the university’s signature red script — extremely awkward.

But we were together. We had each other. And that was enough.

Year by year, pieces of the magic began to fall away, and life started to interrupt the excitement. Illness and age and fast-changing lives eroded the memories I loved, making the holidays something I learned to dread. Christmas music became something I tried to escape upon hearing it. Holiday movies that used to bring me such joy suddenly felt like a cringeworthy chore I had to cross off my list to be a team player.

Despite valiant recovery efforts in recent years to make the holidays magical again for my son’s sake, life seems to always find a way to come along and destroy my best-laid plans. Two years ago, the first Christmas without my dad, I asked if we could skip it altogether (we didn’t, for the record, and I’m pretty sure my iron-willed mother told me to stop being dramatic). When my grandmother — my dearest friend — died last December, I could hardly register the fact that it was Christmas at all.

There comes a point when you stop dissecting your existence into the parts that worked and the parts that didn’t and begin to see it as the ongoing process that it is. You realize there’s no good time to experience bad things and it certainly isn’t Christmas’s fault when it ends up on a collision course with hardship.

My cynicism wasn’t the culmination of isolated circumstances that were out of my control. It was a shield from accepting the fact that life can go on and happiness can be recovered, even if it doesn’t look the same as it did when you first felt it.

The other night, I took my little boy to Batesville for the Polar Express Train Ride, where you board a train at the depot and travel to the “North Pole” while listening to music as dancing chefs bring you hot chocolate and cookies.

My son has watched The Polar Express in its entirely at least once a week on average since last Christmas. He can quote every line and mimic the sound effects and loves to recreate scenes with me playing the conductor.

Somewhere on that 30-minute ride between Batesville and Santa’s workshop, I could feel my heart thawing as my son absorbed the sights and sounds and glued himself to the window in anticipation of seeing Santa. Every few minutes he’d look at me with wide eyes as if to say, “Isn’t this exciting, Mama? Isn’t Christmas just the best?”

We made it to the North Pole and the most convincing Santa I’ve ever seen made his way to our seats to give my son a bell, just like in the book. As he asked my son what he wanted for Christmas, I tried to remember the last time I believed in this man, but couldn’t place it. It’s just been too long.

It was then, in a moment that left me speechless, that Santa suddenly looked up at me with warm reassurance.

“I’ll be back in two weeks,” he said with a smile.

Tears filled my eyes, because deep down, beneath years of hardened emotions and frozen memories, I knew he was right.