The Polar Express and What It Means to Believe

It’s sappy holiday story time! Are you ready? I’m ready…

So, Christmas at my house has always been a decidedly secular affair. In that way, I’m no different from a good portion of North America. My parents and I always loved decorating our tree, drinking cocoa, putting out the cookies and such, but the only time we ever arrived at a Christmas mass it was to hear my piano teacher play the service. I went to see one live nativity display as a teen because a friend’s cousin was playing one of the Wise Men. The only Jesus Christ I was listening to was probably the Superstar kind.

Santa Claus, however, was another matter entirely.

When I was around eight years old, my mother tried to gently break the news that Santa wasn’t a real person. (I have no idea why she waited so long.) I laughed it off because I’d figured out a few years beforehand that Santa had two distinct sets of handwriting and they looked strangely like mom and dad’s. Relieved that she had not crushed my snow-globe bubble of childhood fantasy, she asked, “Why didn’t you let us know once you figured it out?”

The reason was obvious, I thought. “Because I still wanted to get presents that said they were from Santa and elves,” I told her. “It’s my favorite part.”

My mom thought this was supremely endearing, and promised me that I would always get packages from Saint Nick. She kept her word, too; I’ve yet to have a December 25th go by where I didn’t get at least one box that was labeled “From: Santa.” And I wouldn’t have it any other way—it reminds me of the nights I spent up imagining that rustling branches were footsteps on the roof, of staring at my crayon clock and willing the hands forward with my brain, of gazing out my window for some sign without the moon to light the way. From where I’m standing, whether you subscribe to any given religion or not, Christmas is about believing. Not about what you believe, but the power of that belief. And those mislabeled packages were always there to nudge me in the right direction. To make certain I hadn’t forgotten.

There is one story that correctly captures that feeling, I’ve found, and it was one that my father read to me for many years on the night before Christmas: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

I was too young to remember receiving my copy of the book, but I do remember the gift that accompanied it; a bell with its innards removed, so that it never made a sound when you shook it. This is important because of how the tale unfurls—a young boy whose love of Christmas is wearing thin gets taken with a train full of kids to the North Pole to see Santa Claus off before his all-night ride. Of all those children, Santa picks him to receive the First Gift of Christmas, and he chooses the most genius present of all—a bell from Santa’s sleigh. He forgets it on the seat of said sleigh, but it arrives at his home the next morning in a small box. When he shakes it, his mother laments that it’s broken. She hears nothing… but he can hear it. His young sister and friends can hear it, though as they each get older, the sound fades away for them.

The bell only rings for those who believe.

And so I always told my parents I could hear that empty thing every time it shook. Science and logic informed me that this was not possible, and that was entirely irrelevant. That bell was more than holiday spirit to me—it was everything I believed in that I was expected to grow out of as I aged. Magic and miracles, optimism and adventure, harmonic coincidences and luck that couldn’t be made. I could keep them all because that bell was ringing, no matter what anyone said.

Over years of roaming and packing and taking on distance, the bell disappeared, and I always regretted not keeping better track of it. Less the loss of a thing, more the misplacing of a symbol. I wondered if I could ever regain it, or if this was simply what growing up was like for everyone. Along the way we break that special teapot, leave behind a charmed hat or scarf, drop a secret notebook in the mud and watch our scribblings run off the page and away from us.

Then, in the weeks leading up to Christmas of 2008, I was with my partner in a grocery store. It was the first Christmas we’d ever spent away from our respective families and we were both desperately homesick, so we overcompensated by trying to “do Christmas” perfectly—cards out on time, shopping done weeks in advance, full tree with twinkly LED lights. In the store I found a display of chocolate mints, each set wrapped up in white and foresty green, tied with a red bow that had a single bell attached. I picked up one of the boxes and found that the bell made no sound. “Huh,” I said to partner. “Weird that they decided to just put them there for show—they’re not real working bells.” I set the box down and walked away.

The next week I was more homesick and more downtrodden. Christmas was only days away and I thought we were deserving of a pick-me-up of some kind. Those chocolate mints were calling, so I went back to the display and nabbed a box from the top.

The bell fastened to it by that red ribbon rang. I froze. Picked up another box. That bell rang too.

They all were ringing.

What a dead idiot I was. I had found the bell to Santa’s sleigh weeks ago, and being too sapped and cynical and grown up to notice, it had slipped through my fingers again.

My partner watched in equal parts amusement and horror as I proceeded to pick up each box individually and shake; there were easily a hundred or more to chose from on that table in the bakery section. I was muttering to myself like a proper crazy a person: “Oh no you don’t,” I said. “You got away from me twice now, and that’s all you get.” An employee or two passed by, but I think they knew better than to ask. I unstacked all their hard work, precariously perched boxes higher and higher to the side, testing them in turn. Each offered back a hollow, tinny jingle.

Until one of them didn’t.

I shook it again to be certain. Nothing. No working parts to produce that offending rattle. But if I strained my ears hard enough… the sound was there. The same one that I had insisted on to my parents as a child. The one that I had promised to hear, always.

While we drove home, I kept the box clutched to my chest. Eventually I was able to pry my hands off of it long enough to untie the ribbon and bell, which I then wrapped around branch of our Christmas tree, a bough close to the star at the top.

That’s its place every year now.

So I may never attend another Christmas service, or participate in a pageant dressed as half a camel, or comprehend the lyrics of half the carols I sing. But I still get packages from elves. And every time I see a reindeer up close, I have the pesky urge to ask them about the average wind velocity they encounter. And I’m fairly certain that a few of my favorite tree ornaments have lives of their own or entire worlds inside of them.

And I still hear Santa’s sleigh.

Originally published in December 2013.

Emmet Asher-Perrin begs you not to bring up the movie version of Polar Express, which is soul-sucking and deeply depressing. You can bug them on Twitter and read more of their work here and elsewhere.


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