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The greatest Christmas gift

Santa didn’t come last Christmas.

Not that it mattered. Well, all right, maybe a little. 

You see, Santa and I share a special connection. I earned a coveted spot in his “nice” list pretty early in life—as the relatively well-preserved, albeit dust-cloaked, Minnie Mouse doll I received on my very first Christmas can attest to. Since then, the desire to remain in his good books became a powerful incentive for me to abstain from mischief, especially when the red-letter day was around the corner. Christmas Eve nights were spent sitting with my elbows propped against the windowsill, scouring the sky for signs of his dashing fleet of reindeers—with Rudolph and his gleaming red nose at the helm—convinced that I could hear the ever so slight jingling of his sleigh bells if I just strained my ears hard enough. 

Over the years, people came and went, family dynamics changed and old holiday traditions were superseded by new ones. But Santa never disappointed. He came when I feared that my petty squabbles with my brother had relegated me to his blacklist of naughty children. He came, though slightly later than usual, during that one year when I worried that he and his reindeers would be drenched and dispirited by an unexpected torrential downpour. Even when I had my suspicion aroused by the realization that his gift wrappers were curiously identical to the ones that Mom used, he didn’t stop coming. He seldom, if ever, gave me what I wished for, but always knew me well enough to pick something that I ended up loving regardless. Waking up on the morning of December the 25th to find a present at the foot of my bed became an annual ritual, the only constant that anchored me to an increasingly bygone childhood, a habitual anticipation I could never outgrow.

That is, until last year. 

Last year, unlike others, I did not await Santa’s arrival with eager expectation. Being inundated by a barrage of questions from excited friends and family members during back-to-back gatherings—all the while reeling from a grueling combination of end-of-semester exhaustion and jet lag—had so consumed my entire existence in the weeks leading up to Christmas that I was hardly in a festive mood. In fact, his yearly visit completely slipped my mind until the day itself, the realization only setting in when I noticed an unusual emptiness at the foot of my bed in the morning.

At first, I thought nothing of it. After all, it was high time that I, now a college student, stopped feigning ignorance of the truth behind this tradition. There was nothing truly earth-shattering about Santa’s absence. I knew that he would have to stop coming eventually anyway.

But it still kind of hurt. It hurt because this change struck me like a bolt from the blue. It just had to come at a time when the ground beneath my feet was already shifting madly. Adopting the semi-nomadic lifestyle of an international student meant that I was suddenly living two distinct lives in two very distant countries, which I was still struggling to reconcile. It demanded that I uproot myself from an environment I had grown comfortable with and traverse 10, 000 miles to my “other” home every now and then. 

Returning home for the first time after a couple of months—the longest I’d ever been away—was comforting and unsettling in equal measures, for everything felt familiar and foreign at the same time. 

The neighborhood supermarket remained exactly where it had been the last time I visited it, but was hardly recognizable with its gleaming exterior and reshuffled layout. Taking public transport after months of riding only the C1 every day was refreshing, but my disoriented brain struggled to navigate the newly renovated bus interchange. Having to scan a QR code and display my proof of vaccination before entering any public facility was anxiety-inducing. The series of maneuvers had to be perfectly timed and smoothly executed, lest I invite disapproving glares and annoyed tut-tuts for holding up the line. 

Friends and family greeted me with effusive welcomes, but somehow the excessive hospitality only augmented the distance between us. It was as though I were now a stranger, a passing visitor, rather than someone they had known for years. The hardest part was having to leave yet again, to bid the people I love farewell once more, after fleeting reunions and brief exchanges that offered us mere snapshots of each other’s lives. 

Amidst this whirlwind of change, Santa was the one constant I thought I could count on to keep me grounded—so when even he had pulled the rug from under my feet, it hurt. 

It seems almost ridiculous that a college student could be so upset over something so ostensibly trivial and childish. But the abrupt disappearance of this beloved childhood tradition officially marked my transition into a new chapter of life, one that I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for. 

This change was what I had worked so hard and hoped so desperately for though. Santa knew that more than anyone else. It probably pained him as much as it did me, but he knew that I needed to experience it to grow and thrive. He wasn’t the most enthusiastic about me travelling halfway across the world during a global pandemic, especially to a country he primarily associated with rampant gun violence and anti-Asian hate crimes. At times, he wouldn’t stop going on about the potential pitfalls I could encounter in my pursuit of higher education. Yet, he was always quietly rooting for me, ever so willing to do everything within his means to render the financial or emotional support I needed.

Santa may not have left a present at the foot of my bed last Christmas, but in many ways, he had already given me the greatest gift of all—a gift that will keep on giving long after he is gone. 

Valerie Tan is a Pratt first-year. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

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