Sleigh Bells

Growing up, I loved the holidays.

Everything about them – the lights, the snow, the food, the candlelight church services and singing “O Holy Night” next to my grandfather – are wrapped in warm memories.

Most of all though, I loved Santa. I loved believing he was real, thinking about how he flew in the sky, slipped down chimneys, and survived only on milk and cookies. The idea of Santa made me feel like the world was a magical place where anything could happen.

But around fifth grade, in that tricky time when I still played with Barbies but also felt tingly around boys, I started to feel like maybe I wasn’t supposed to believe anymore.

It seemed like kids my age were moving on, eager to get an early start on teenage life. But growing up seemed scary to me and meant so many things I wasn’t ready for. So I hung on to Santa longer then most of my friends.

Until one day at school my teacher announced, “I don’t want anyone to burst into tears here, fifth graders, but I think we all know that Santa doesn’t exist.”

My whole class erupted with laughter but I was frozen to my desk.

My friend Ashley – who would later tell me what condoms were used for – snickered and caught my eye.

“Does she think we’re babies?”

I laughed a little too loudly – embarrassed and heartbroken and angry with myself for still hoping my teacher was wrong.

That night, I went home and wrote a letter to Santa.

That night, I went home and wrote a letter to Santa.

I asked him for sleigh bells – instructing him to please take them off a reindeer and put them in my stocking. I used my best penmanship but really I was throwing down the gauntlet.

I needed Santa to show himself to me – to prove that some things from my childhood would last forever. I needed him to save me from growing up.

As Christmas Eve got closer, my parents reminded me again and again that Santa might not want to give up his sleigh bells. That maybe I shouldn’t hope for them so earnestly. But I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t want to hear them.

On Christmas Eve, I went to bed with a nervous heart. I fell asleep, clinging to a tiny shred of hope.

I woke up around midnight to a noise. I lay there for a second trying to hear.

There it was again. Unmistakable.


I sat up and leaned over to the window, throwing aside the curtains and scanning the roof. Nothing – but it didn’t matter. The roof was big and my window only faced one side.

I eased my way out of bed and crept down the stairs. A hammer beat in my chest as I circled down the hall to the basement – where earlier that night I had half-heartedly set out milk and cookies.

I heard it again – jingle bells – high and light and music to my ears. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

Santa was real.

I paused at the top of the staircase and eased a toe down onto the brown-shag step, feeling light-headed and a bit in shock.

I paused at the top of the staircase and eased a toe down onto the brown-shag step, feeling light-headed and a bit in shock. Before I could take another step I heard a deep, soft voice.

My foot hovered in the air. There was something familiar about that voice. It sounded just like my dad.

My hands were sweaty and I felt stuck in indecision, my toe dangling above the second step. I willed myself to move, to prove it.

And then, before I could change my mind, I turned and ran back upstairs.

I scrambled up to my bed and grabbed my blanket – another totem of my youth with which I couldn’t yet part.

I buried my head in the covers and closed my eyes. I had had the chance to end it – to walk into adulthood and leave the soft gray of childhood to enter the black and white. But I just couldn’t take that brown shag step into reality.

I wasn’t ready.

On the stairs, I had realized it was up to me. I was in control of when to move forward.

The next morning, I pulled the sleigh bells out of my stocking. They were made from worn brass and attached to a weathered strip of leather.

My dad leaned forward, eager to see that I still believed.

I smiled, my heart aching, and announced loudly that they smelled like reindeer.
This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.



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