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As for me and granddad, we believe sort of
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Christmas in the Choate household was pretty typical. Stockings, advent calendars and presents were all there but one big, particularly fat and jolly, red-suited elf was not. - photo by Amy Choate-Nielsen
Last year around Christmastime, my daughter came home with a bell.

Can you hear it ringing, Mom? she asked me with great enthusiasm.

She was in first grade at the time, and that day, her teacher read her the story of The Polar Express, then gave everyone in the class a special bell. The idea is only people who really believe in Santa Claus can hear the bell ringing.

I told her I could hear it, but as far as the implications go that I believe in Santa my answer isnt what you might think.

The truth is, my childhood Santa wasnt like anyone elses, so whether or not I believe is kind of a tricky question.

Way back in the 1980s, Christmas in the Choate household was a magical time. I loved my mothers advent calendars the one of a felt evergreen tree with a pocket for each day until Christmas, and the one of Joseph and Mary moving along a path toward Bethlehem. We took turns each day pulling the sequined, stuffed felt ornaments from the calendar pockets and pinning them to the tree, and slowly moving the famous couple toward an empty manger the baby Jesus was always hidden until his appearance on the 25th.

My parents each brought elements of their Christmas experience to our family. My father brought stockings filled with pennies and oranges, and my mother brought a big, molded plastic wreath with a choirboy and glowing red lights to hang on the front door. The sculpture had been a staple at her fathers music store, which he used to decorate with lights and ornaments and tinsel as soon as Thanksgiving was over.

In our family, we gave each other gifts for as long as I can remember. I made coupon books promising acts of kindness for the year and gave popsicle mobiles that I finished moments before present-opening time with the glue still wet. I was happy to receive doodads and rolls of Bubble Tape, my favorite.

We took turns opening the presents one by one and we did it on Christmas Eve. That was a tradition my mothers parents invented to spare themselves the hassle of having to wake up super early on Christmas Day.

They told their kids that Santa had to start somewhere, and there were so many kids in the world that he needed to start at their house on Christmas Eve in order to visit them all, lucky ducks. (Meanwhile, my grandparents were also lucky because instead of waking up at the crack of dawn on the 25th, they slept in as their children quietly played with their new toys. Brilliant!)

We opened all of our presents on Christmas Eve and saved the stockings for Christmas Day. The other traditional elements of Christmas were there but Santa wasnt.

My mom decided before she had kids that Santa in our house would be different. She didnt want to perpetuate a myth or have her children resent her for bending the truth one way, so she bent it another.

In our family, my dad was Santa Claus.

It was a fine arrangement. I never thought much of it until I had kids of my own.

On the one hand, I love the idea of the wonder and excitement the jolly old elf inspires. I like the idea of Rudolph and the North Pole, and I like fostering my childrens imaginations. I like using the notion that Santa is watching as a means of evoking good behavior.

On the other hand, that threat never really works well in my house. And there are some other trappings of Santa that get in my way: Id like to wrap some presents early and put them under the tree, but that wouldnt make sense to my kids, who know when Santa is supposed to come. I dont like that he gets all of the credit for work he didnt do. And I have taught my children that Santa is limited to provide only what parents can afford, but explaining charity to a kid who believes in Santa is a difficult proposition.

This week, we bought some extra things for a family in need, but I told my 4-year-old son that we were dropping the goods off at the house of someone who knew how to contact Santa so he could deliver the presents, but no, we couldnt go with him or ask how to get there.

I cant believe I got away with that.

I guess thats part of the magic of Santa as long as my kids decide they want to believe.

This week, I asked my parents, Why didnt we have Santa at our house?

And they said, We did.

True, his cheeks werent like roses, nor was his nose like a cherry, and his belly did not shake like a bowl full of jelly, but my dad and I count my mom, too is as real as any Santa ever was.

So, I hear the bell.

I believe.