It was a few days before Christmas, and Marley was as excited as ever. She had turned 12 just a few weeks earlier, and though she had long ceased to believe in Santa Claus, she was still young enough and carefree enough to find the holiday season entirely magical and exceptional.
To her, it was almost as though the ordinary world — normally so gray, reserved, businesslike, and adult — was temporarily replaced with a world designed by and for children. And if not really created for children exclusively, at least made for the children in all of us.
Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Marley thought the world became brighter, shinier, noisier, busier, colder, crisper, whiter, fuller and happier. In stores, on streets, in neighborhoods, in downtowns — no matter where you went — everything and everybody was better.
Houses had Christmas lights, and you could see trees in their living rooms. Stores were festive, and toys and gifts seemed to become most important. Music played everywhere. On sidewalks, people rang bells, and sometimes, you’d see groups singing. Best of all, everybody seemed to be smiling all of the time; and really best of all, children got a lot of attention.
Marley thought the best time of year might just be Christmastime. There was school vacation, family gatherings, parties, snowstorms and more fun than usual. There was lightheartedness — some people put wreaths on the front of their cars or wore ski hats with ears.
Around Christmastime, everything seemed possible to Marley. She felt the happiness, the optimism, the reciprocal goodwill and the security that seemed to define the holiday. The future seemed bright and promising and safe, and it would almost certainly be even better than the present.
But this year, something was wrong. Marley could see it and feel it. It was as though everybody — but the adults especially — hadn’t noticed that it was nearing Christmas. No magic was in the air; no exceptionalism, no zaniness and no brightness of any sort.
Even worse, some spell had come over everybody. People seemed stuck in their smallest selves and in their least-forgiving outlooks. People seemed to assume the worst about others, especially about those whom they didn’t actually know. And nobody smiled at strangers.
Marley noticed a peculiar and frightening thing. Growing and learning had stopped. She observed that conversations had become mere exchanges. People would speak, but hearing seemed to have disappeared. Nobody seemed curious or asked questions. Nobody adjusted his thinking, or gained from the experiences of others. Marley was still in sixth grade, and like a sponge, she absorbed knowledge and ideas wherever they were — in her books, homework, experiments, lectures and outdoors. To her, learning seemed inseparable from living itself, and so seeing the adults shrink and close was scary.
She was about to give up on the Christmas spirit altogether when something extraordinary happened. One very cold, still night, after everybody had gone to bed, and when the full moon and a zillion stars sparkled off the white, snow-covered ground and illuminated the world, Marley heard a soft tapping on her window. She arose, went to the window and opened it. Outside, her gentle grandmother, seven years dead, smiled at her. Marley, she said, I know what you are afraid of.
You are afraid that all of the adults have stopped growing. You are asking, what if — by some ill fate — everybody is done? What if nobody could grow, learn, expand or develop further? What if all of us were frozen, right now, as simply the people that we are now?
But Marley’s grandmother smiled and told her not to fear the world. Instead, get up tomorrow morning and pay attention to all of the ways that people are constantly bigger than they need to be. You will be surprised by what you see.
And Marley did. She went out the next day and looked a little harder than she had been looking. Everywhere, she saw people working hard, building things, talking, singing, reading and helping others. She smiled at everybody, and they smiled back at her.
That next day, after the visit from her grandmother, there seemed to be more brightness in the world, and Marley swears that everybody seemed cheerier and more generous-hearted. People are never done, she thought happily; they are always growing.
Now, you may not believe in ghosts. You may doubt this tale. But I know Marley, and she told me this story not so long ago. Furthermore, she said that that Christmas was her best ever. For she had received the best gift that a person can receive, and so — without really thinking about it — it was the same gift that she gave to everybody else that Christmas.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.