Christmas at Chengdu Panda Research Park 2015

When I was much shorter and my ears stuck out of my hair, I always rode home from my Aunt Verla’s Christmas Eve party anxiously scanning the sky for a glimpse of a polished hoof or a sleigh’s gleaming runner, egged on by the radio announcer who reported Santa sightings between pre-recorded carols rubbed smooth and silky with long use. One year my dad spent all Christmas Eve night sitting bolt upright in a plane as the pilots waited for the fog to lift. That evening my mother and we kids slid into a ditch driving on the country road out to Aunt Verla’s, and I soaked my party dress wading hip deep into the snow to push the car out for the very first time, feeling like the man of the house as I waited for Santa.

After the party that night we drove to the Idaho Falls airport to pick up my dad, only to be told his plane probably wouldn’t make it until the next day. I stood there in a child’s shock, tears welling in my eyes as another man angrily waved a shipping receipt in the face of the airline attendant, as though yelling would make the missing presents appear. As we walked away my youngest sister called loudly from my mother’s arms, “Say him Mewry Chwistmas!” Both men looked up, a little stunned, and then seemed to remember themselves. The angry man smiled and lowered his receipt.

Human beings have a need to believe in magic, to feel a kinship with the fantastic and miraculous. Years ago, a cashier at Disney World called me Princess Paula, which could not have been more absurd, yet I blushed and smiled, and even had the urge to buy a few more items, which I’m sure was the basic idea. Disney even made it snow in Florida, pumping non-staining, non-toxic, and above all, non-frozen foam in the air from high above the crowd, where it floated onto the noses and hair of smiling guests wearing light jackets and queuing up for hot chocolate and popcorn. Every year Americans spend three kings’ ransoms on glittery glass and red plaid—a little fairy dust, some abracadabra, and poof, we’re all supposed to feel warm and cozy. Though sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we feel too sophisticated to search the sky for flying antlers or strain our ears for jingle bells. Instead we spend a fortune at the movie theater where Superman and Batman chase the bad guys, capes flying in the wind, a couple of uber-humans scrubbing a safe spot in a dangerous world. It’s really just magic painted over with violence to make it smell grown up.

Ten years ago, my children asked for magic wands and Harry Potter brooms to replace the wooden chopsticks they’d been whipping out of their back pockets, yelling Expeliarmus, and shooting sparks of childhood magic across the walls and into the carpet, making a giggly tickle in our feet. Even now, all these years later, my children remind me that miracles are the stuff of everyday life, though at this stage they’d probably laugh at me if I said it out loud.

Every December, when my children were young, our family acted out the birth of Jesus, hauling hordes of stuffed animals and other props to the basement. My daughter Abby was in her long-standing horse phase, and refused to be Mary on the grounds that the donkey was so much cooler. Chase came down the stairs with a huge plastic machine gun. “I’m security for Jesus,” he said. He also set up a squadron of planes and infantry to protect the Bethlehem village laid out under the living room tree, even placing snipers in the Victorian village on the piano. I was too busy laughing to point out that a single angel packed more firepower than an army, yet for some reason angels appear less fierce than snipers and fighter jets, an extraordinary tromp l’oi rendered in flaky oils by the old master Arrogance.

When I was a child, I remember standing on the porch of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, waiting to go inside, when Mary Poppins came up on the porch to stand in the shade for a spell, and talk to the attendants at the Mansion. She didn’t look bedraggled, just hot and shimmery sweaty in her blue Mary Poppins coat, Victorian skirt and shirtwaist. I remember looking at Mary Poppins, but seeing the woman in the costume, and feeling compassion for anyone wearing a coat on such a warm day. For me it is a treasured Disneyland memory, though it could never happen today. Disney workers are now called “Cast Members,” and Mary Poppins wears her big frooffy red and white fancy frock, for maximum impact. She also has at least one attendant, and is never allowed out long enough to get anything so tedious as sweaty or human. Ironically, the glitzier Mary Poppins became, the more the Disneyland public seemed to require, growing more and more picky and entitled every year.

It appears we don’t believe in magic, yet we pay fabulous sums of money for people to help us pretend we do. And the world has responded, pouring vast resources into research and development for special effects that grow ever more prolific, hi-tech, and expensive. But no illusion can mask the pandemic raging around us, the skyrocketing unemployment, or the many leaders in turmoil, attempting to save themselves by pointing fingers at each other. But don’t lose heart, sometimes it takes a pandemic to help us spot the woman in the costume. The Big Secret is that all humans are born with magic, and not one of us requires a wand.

There would be no Superman or Batman without an army of inventors, artists, writers, actors, and computer geeks, all pushing their creativity and pooling their efforts. By the same token, there is no Santa, yet the fantasy can exist because millions and millions of people delight in giving. Remember that night in the Idaho Falls airport when hurt and frustration ran high? Who broke the tension but a small girl in her mother’s arms, too small and innocent to lose track of the grandeur of the moment.

I am taller now, and my ears no longer stick out of my hair. I’ve pushed many cars, fretted over many troubles, and wept so many losses, yet somehow I have survived without a magic wand, a jolly elf, or even a caped crusader, and so have you. So, what’s the answer, because I appear to be talking out of both sides of my mouth. On one hand I claim that a single angel is more powerful than an army, and on the other I tout the tremendous capacity and creativity of the human spirit. It’s a big question hotly debated for millennia between believers and humanists, so who am I to say. Yet for me the answer is simple.

We are all born with the magic of intelligence and creativity because God gave it to us, along with the admonition to stretch, cooperate, and innovate in order to solve our problems. In other words, little Chase was protecting Bethlehem the best way he knew how, an effort I believe God would appreciate, particularly because God himself would have quietly helped Chase develop his technology.  But sometimes the foe is so vast and shocking that our best magic fails, and there we hang, twisting in the void, out of ideas and resources. But this is the time when little Chase needs to remember that Bethlehem was never truly left unprotected, because one night an angel appeared to a drowsy world announcing the greatest superhero mankind will ever know. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Did you hear that? “A Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” We are magic because we collaborate with God, the most powerful being in the universe.

The tempest is raging all around us, and there is no need to ration our faith so it can be spent in December. Though it is July, I want to say you Mewry Chwistmas.

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