Saturday, December 22, 2012

Childlike Belief

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Tuesday night I did two things I've never done before, no make that three: bought a movie ticket for a friend, run across the street ten minutes to movie time to buy sugar-free, dairy-free snacks because the local candy store lacked such delicacies, and question my longtime Christmas cynicism. The movie in question was Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks' newest release.
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The first thing needs no explanation, because we've all done nice things for friends on whom we've previously cancelled. The second one involved dashing across the street in jeans and sneakers, giggling like maniacs and scanning the shelves for sugar-free chocolate and trail mix. Calorie-burning laughter escaped our lips as we dashed up the steps past a surprised four-year old with his action figure and an older man who didn't know to buy tickets downstairs. Because it was a Tuesday night that offered no discounts, we chose our seats with giddy glee. We had missed most of the previews, and for good reason; only two preview promised films worth watching.

Rise of the Guardians started with Jack Frost realizing that no one could see him. We couldn't help but lean in closer as children from the middle ages passed through him and Pitch Black started to form nightmares. As we met the Australian Easter Bunny, Hummingbird-like Tooth Fairy, and a buff Santa Claus, mature cynicism battled with laments as children lost faith in their quarter-giving, egg-donating heroes. My mind turned to the past for the first time, with a painful retrospect.

I have three older siblings; one bought Christmas presents in Santa's name for two years and hid them in our kitchen, and the other ratted her out two years after the fact. My belief in Santa Claus shattered like a glass of lemonade on a concrete sidewalk. A similar thing happened when the Tooth Fairy left a dollar but forgot the tooth, sandwiched between two pillows. Anger replaced the shock, and acceptance replaced the anger. After all, wanting things was selfish, and we could use the occasion to be generous?
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For ten years I have believed that notion, that writing letters to Santa denoted selfishness, that Christmas focused on getting rather than giving. Rise of the Guardians challenges that notion, asking, "What if the holiday entities need us, instead of us needing them? Is it wrong to be selfish, wanting quarters for teeth and colored eggs?"

The question stirs unwanted feelings, guilt that I've made fun of reality intruding on dreams, and frantic grasping for that childhood selfishness, realizing that it has vanished. Unlike the lucky kids in the movie, the stubborn adult in me knows that Jack Frost and North won't appear to protect me from trampling nightmares. I have to protect my imagination with vengeance from fear and monsters. Neil Gaiman's Sandman has inoculated me against the movie's cute, innocent dream weaver, so I could only enjoy his golden incarnate as a character rather than an entity.  
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The movie also taught me something important: don't ruin the Guardians' existence for other children; let them enjoy the fantasy of Christmas morning and baby teeth while they can. Losing belief is like losing a broken-winged butterfly to a hurricane. Gusts carry the insect away with green lawn chairs and palm branches, but you don't stop trying to grasp it, to save it from the cruel weather. At some point the rain splatters between your eyebrows along with angry resignation. The years pass, no more hurricanes come, and the anger fades. Adulthood settles in, as do new fantasies and realities. We can never recollect the original butterfly, and it remains the most precious by having appeared first. 

I've learned my lesson for the holidays and the future, when I see kids that still believe. That said, I don't advocate the cheesy "believing is seeing" from the Santa Clause franchise. We can't spend our whole lives thinking that a bunny hides Easter eggs in the spring time or that fairies have quarters for teeth. But we can spend a part of our lives nurturing that belief; its short lifetime doesn't make its existence less important.

Happy Christmas. Don't fear the Boogeyman.