I still wish I hadn’t peeked in the attic that year.
It was Christmas 1972 and I was 10. It was the first year when I no longer believed in Santa Claus.
Until that point, Christmas had been a magical time for me.
A few weeks after Thanksgiving, I would join with my father to pick out our tree. He’d wear his rattiest coat and work his mastery on the helpless Christmas-tree guy to knock the price down two or three bucks.
Soon, my father and I would have our giant platform in place and the tree perfectly positioned.
We’d string the lights — thick old bulbs that burned fingers when touched — and head to the attic to bring down boxes of Christmas decorations.
My sisters would be called and our whole family would decorate the tree. As our stack of scratchy old Christmas records would play — as Mitch Miller, Bing Crosby and the Chipmunks would sing — our mother would make special note of old ornaments handed down from family members long gone and my sisters would show me how to hang the tinsel expertly, one strand at a time.
The sun soon would go down and the light of our Christmas-tree bulbs reflecting off the tinsel would transform our living room into a kaleidoscope — a brilliant glow of colors dancing on the walls and ceiling.
My mother, a master at building up suspense, would talk about the days ahead — church, family and the gifts Santa might bring.
We would have the sense that a real event was about to happen. And it was.
The next few weeks would take forever to pass. Finally, Christmas Eve would arrive. There would be no harder night, then or now, for a kid to sleep.
But as Bing Crosby would sing “White Christmas” on the old stereo console — as our father would grumble to our mother, “For goodness-sakes, Betty, I’ll never get this thing together by morning ...” — we’d finally fall asleep, only to wake three hours later to the glorious surprise awaiting us downstairs.
All that magic left me in 1972.
What a fraud it all seemed to be.
Yet there was my mother, as cheerful and hopeful as ever. She whistled along with our Christmas albums as she decorated the house. She did everything she could to build up mystery and suspense, but I wanted none of it that year.
I had become a cynic.
All I cared about was that my gifts were hidden in the attic. I had pulled down the attic stairs and snuck up inside with a flashlight. I had been surprised to see one gift I really wanted but didn’t think my parents could afford: a table-top hockey game!
My excitement had quickly turned to sadness. I had cheated my mother. I had robbed her of the mystery and suspense she put so much effort into building.
I had to fake my surprise on Christmas morning. I felt like a rat.
That happened 38 years ago.
Here’s what also happened: Every Christmas got better after that. They’re getting better still.
My mother and father are doing well in their 70s. My mother is whistling along with old Christmas records as you read this.
Despite all the noise our country faces every year — materialism and arguing over public Christmas displays — Christmas is very simple to me.
In addition to its spiritual origin, it is a celebration of the abundance of love and security my parents gave my sisters and me so many years ago, the love and security we give each other still.
I don’t peek into attics anymore.
(Tom Purcell, is a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.)