This column was written in 1986 when my son was 2. Now that my grandsons have turned 2, I thought it was worth another printing.
This is the time of year to be a parent, especially if you have a 2-year-old in tow. Until the age of 2, kids haven’t fully grasped the concept of “Christmas.” When they turn 2, something in the toddler’s brain kicks in and every utterance after that contains the word “toys.”
Christmas catalogs don’t help. My son pores over his “magzawines” for hours, it seems, as he tries to master the fine art of pooping on his toilet. He has identified 13,082 items (at last count) for his Christmas list.
Fortunately, he can’t remember them all when he visits Santa. When I was a kid, Santa could be found only in major department stores during the month of December. Every year, our family made one pilgrimage to either Wieboldt’s or Marshall Field’s at Harlem and Lake. That meant something.
Nowadays, you can’t turn around without running into Santa. My son has climbed onto a half-dozen red velvet laps already and has a fuzzy Polaroid to prove each one. In the photo, he’s always leaning away from the jolly old elf as if he fears white beards might be contagious.
When Santa asks what he wants, he always replies, “a front-end loader,” which — in case you didn’t spend all summer hanging around construction sites like my son and I did — is a species of work truck used to move dirt, something that seems to be endlessly fascinating to most 2-year-olds.
After my son makes his request, Santa invariably looks at me with a puzzled expression, and, after my brief explanation, he responds enthusiastically, “Oh, you mean a dump truck!”
My son must think Santa is a moron. “How many times do I have to tell this guy? Why doesn’t he write it down?” At the last store we visited, he asked, “Do they have a real Santa here or just pretend ones?”
I say, enough with these cotton-candy beards, cheap felt hats and heartless ho-ho-hos. Stores should hire only older men with real beards who look like Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) and speak fluent Dutch.
At the age of 2, Christmas must be a veritable typhoon of sweet confusion and anxious expectation. My son hears bits and pieces about a baby born in a barn and sleeping in a food trough, a reindeer with an electric nose, a nutcracker transformed into a prince who wears tights and performs pirouettes, and some fat guy who slides down chimneys and lives in a place called “The North Pole.”
I think it’s starting to get to him. Last night I overheard him singing a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells Are Coming To Town.” Recently, we drove past some sheep grazing in a pasture near the highway. A voice from the back seat called out, “Look, polar bears!”
I’ve heard that parents see Christmas anew through the eyes of their children. I wouldn’t go quite that far. We will never again experience the magic of this holiday the way we once did. Long ago, I crossed whatever raging mythic river separates me forever from Toyland (“Once you cross its borders, you can never go back again”).
But when my son and I stand in front of a Christmas display window these days, I envy him a little. His eyes absorb ornaments and angels, multicolored lights and lustrous artificial snow without the handicap of several decades of accrued knowledge and experience. He doesn’t perceive himself perceiving. I do that for him. In the midst of December’s enchantment, I can’t take my eyes off his. The whole thing must seem a marvelous insanity.
It’s almost a pity that someday Christmas will make sense to him. By then, perhaps, he’ll have kids of his own.
Tonight we’re planning to decorate our tree. My son can’t wait. To tell you the truth, neither can I.