James Mangaliman

Believing beyond our childhood

By  James Mangaliman, Youth Speak News
  • December 22, 2014

Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Polar Express is a classic Christmas tale read to many children in homes and schools. In 32 pages, Allsburg captures the magic of Christmas through the eyes of a boy who visits Santa’s Workshop via a mysterious train one snowy C hristmas Eve. The boy receives a gift from Santa Claus, a bell, which rings only to those who “believe.”

I listened to The Polar Express for the first time nine years ago, in a cold van, on a white Christmas Eve, as a radio broadcast. I sat with a mug of hot chocolate as my dad drove my family around the snowy streets of Toronto. From one neighbourhood to the next we spent the night, sightseeing different homes decked with Christmas lights. This was our Christmas tradition. But like the belief in Santa Claus, it faded with age, shovelled away like snow to prioritize our mundanities.

Of course, the meanings we attach to different activities are prone to shift as we are exposed to new ideas. At one period in their lives, children are raised to believe in a jolly man who delivers presents to good children. But, surrounded by a group of disbelieving individuals, social pressure molds them into conforming to popular values. Christian children are also taught that we celebrate Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25 and may later realize that the Bible marks Jesus’ birth in the lambing season, which is in spring.

Christmas celebrations can be traced back to early Europe. Different civilizations, like the Norse and the Romans, celebrated their pagan gods on the winter solstice (Dec. 21), which heralded the coming of longer days of sunlight. Thus the week of the winter solstice was a period to celebrate coming prosperity. In the third century Pope Julius I associated the Nativity with Christmas day, Dec. 25.

Many children start out with notions of Christmas solely as a celebration of Jesus’ birth. But then they hear about a bearded man with gifts and there is no wonder that as people grow and learn new things they become confused with what Christmas truly means.

What should we believe in? Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection and thus mankind’s salvation. But what is Christmas truly for? Even the children in The Polar Express lose belief. As the boy explains: “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for them.”

Except for the boy.

The sweet sound of the bell remains for those who believe. And it can for us too. Maybe not by hoping for an old man in red, but definitely by believing in Christ, the power of virtues and attitudes of charity, and spending time with loved ones, which has always been a consistent aspect of the celebrations. As well, no one says the sweet sounds of the bell can’t be heard throughout the year.

(Mangaliman, 18, is a first-year Humanities student at the University of Toronto.)

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