The Christmas I was nine, I had pretty much given up on the idea of Santa. It's strange to me that I had not given up on it sooner--I was, after all, the kid who couldn't sit through the Wizard of Oz without harping on the fact that it would've been impossible for all those "people" who'd never met--Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion--to know all the words to the song "We're Off To See The Wizard." On the other hand, I did not seem to have much trouble accepting a talking Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion or, for that matter, a green-faced Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys so perhaps it's not so odd after all.
In any case, I didn't quite NOT believe in Santa but mostly that was the same kind of bet-hedging I imagine many on-the-fence agnostics indulge in--better not to say out loud, "There is no Santa" just in case there is one and he might be offended and vengeful at my disbelief.
So Little Sister and I were in the bedroom we shared, awake late, too excited to sleep, wondering aloud about the surprises there might be under the tree, just generally being kids on Christmas Eve. At some point--and I'm not sure if she was still awake or not--there came the sound of tinkling bells.
They were sleigh bells, of course. No other logical explanation could be found in my wanting-to-believe brain. And that sealed the deal on at least six more months of being right around 85% certain that Santa Claus not only existed but did in fact fly around the world in a sleigh pulled by bell-bedecked reindeer.
By the following Christmas, I no longer believed and I can't remember exactly what compelling evidence pushed me to non-believer status, but there was always this weird nagging doubt in the back of my mind--"What about those sleigh bells?"
Three years or so after I heard those sleigh bells, I was digging for dimes in the desk drawer where my father sometimes threw his pocket change and came across a photo of him with the box of the pinball machine we had found under the tree the Christmas morning I was nine and suddenly those sleigh bells made a lot more sense. It hadn't been a sleigh landing on the roof, it had been my father test-driving the pinball machine.
Thirty-two years later, the fact that I didn't recognize the bells of the sleigh the night before Christmas as the bells of the pinball machine Christmas morning remains one of my most enduring lessons in the power of our wishes and moods to influence our perceptions of the world around us. Though I've not always put it to good use*, the awareness that what I see is often influenced by what I "want" to see was a much longer-lasting gift than the pinball machine or anything else I found under the tree that morning.
*In that way, it's like the gift of exercise equipment--you have every intention of using it and you know it would do you good to use it, but all too often it ends up abandoned in some corner--a treadmill turned clothes rack.
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