The girls and I are standing on Lisa’s doorstep. They are under strict instructions not to discuss their inside knowledge about Santa Claus with the other kids this afternoon. Saoirse gives me a knowing nod. At 11, she gets it. Not every child is in on the secret. There’s no need to stomp on other families’ choices. I put my hand on Ula’s 7-year-old shoulder, pushing my thumb ever-so-slightly into her tense muscle. This is my gentle (yet admittedly coercive) reminder to her: I’m watching you, kid.
She isn’t simply proud of herself for outgrowing Santa. She’s pissed the whole idea exists.
Ula’s the wild card on this one. She knows she’s supposed to follow my instructions and keep her mouth shut. But Ula considers the Santa myth immoral. “It is a terrible thing for parents to lie to their children that way,” she has explained over and over to me. She isn’t simply proud of herself for outgrowing Santa. She’s pissed the whole idea exists. She wants to smash the fat-guy-in-a-chimney legend and rescue every American child from what she views as adults’ distorted teachings on faith.
I look down at my other hand. I am holding a candle. It is the reason we are late. We had to stop at the local craft supply store and buy a special candle for today. I feel a little foolish. I consider taking it back to the car. But the girls know I’ve put my idea in motion by making us late to buy it. They won’t let me off the hook that easily.
‘This is embarrassing,’ my ego reminds me. ‘This is for Lisa,’ I shout back in my head. ‘To hell with how it makes you feel.’
Lisa has invited a small circle of women friends and their daughters to her house this afternoon. She will have us tattoo her bald head with henna. Her last chemo session was a few weeks prior. This is her send-off to breast cancer. We will make something beautiful of it.
I am comfortable with that idea. I am always happy to find a way to make lemonade from lemons. But in my heart, I feel like Lisa is asking for something deeper. On the surface, she is asking us to paint her head. But really, I believe she is asking us for prayers and magic.
Hence, the candle.
My homespun cross section of American culture values discussing the body and mind, and how they must be in service to spirit. I’ve noticed, however, that outside of Sunday church services or private moments, it is awkward to publicly seek balance in that trinity—to ask spirit to serve the mind and body.
We should never wait around for Santa’s magic. We are the magic.
Lisa’s daughter Sarah opens the door, and we spill in, a heap of coats, boots, and good wishes. We shed our winter garments, then make our way to the kitchen, where the painting is already in progress. Lisa and Eileen, the other mother, smile up at me over mugs of tea. Under Eileen’s and Sarah’s hands, Lisa’s head has begun to transform from a bald artifact of modern medicine into a piece of art. There is ample space for more creativity, however, and Eileen offers me the tube of henna.
Before I can accept it, I know I must explain this candle. My voice rises slightly, an effort at portraying a confident bravado to mask my shyness about what I will propose.
“This is a really special time, Lisa,” I stammer a bit. She meets my gaze directly. Her face, liberated from a head of hair, strikes me as unusually open. I draw strength from it. “I, I don’t know if you realize, but,” my empty hand tightens into a nervous fist. “But, see, the moon is waning. It’s almost a new moon.”
Lisa and Eileen make polite noises of acknowledgment. My face is flushing from pink to purple. “Well, in Druid tradition, that’s a powerful time to ask for things to be drawn away. And this,” I hold up the candle, “is to double the magic.” I notice that I’m not breathing, so I inhale quickly. “If it’s okay with you, I thought maybe we could do some candle magic and pray to the waning moon to draw away the illness.”
I hand her my little offering. “This is a special candle.” I am eager to finish my speech. “It’s a gift. You should only light it to say prayers for things you want to go away. So I got it to send off the cancer.”
Lisa’s grin is broad.
“Don’t burn it in a romantic dinner with your husband, is what I’m saying,” I add. “Unless, of course, you want him to go away, too.”
The fragility of the moment is shattered with laughter. Lisa breathes in deeply. “Great!” She welcomes my contribution. “I’ll take all the help I can get!”
Eileen leans forward, eyes wide. “Do you have a group that you practice with?”
I suddenly realize this is magic she can believe in. It is a union of human intention with natural forces.
“No,” I shake my head. “I have an Aunt Kimmie and an Aunt Katie. Aunt Katie makes sure I know my Catechism. Kimmie makes sure I learn this stuff.” I feel the muscles in my body relax. They have welcomed my weirdness and my lessons from Aunt Kimmie. Spirit can join us today.
We laugh at our best attempts to squeeze the henna into ornate patterns over Lisa’s skin. But it seems like, no matter what twists, turns, and faulty splurps ooze from the bottle, Lisa is only more beautiful with each swirl we make. When we’ve decided at last that she has been properly ornamented, we light the candle and ask the girls to join us at the kitchen table.
Saoirse and Ula are ready and eager to participate in the spell and the prayers. They come up with rhyming lines to ask all the forces to draw away the disease. Saoirse’s gentle voice is strong as she takes her moment to draw from the group and state her wishes for Lisa. I turn my head to watch Ula, my little skeptic. Her eyes are closed in fierce concentration. She is gripping the hands of her friends tightly, as though by sheer strength she can use her spirit to unite with the forces of nature and the great divine, to gift Lisa everlasting health.
I suddenly realize this is magic she can believe in. It is a union of human intention with natural forces. This is not about Santa. This is about making our loved ones stronger. About healing. About creating a better world.
Every year I think to myself how nice it would be if a big fat man would come down the chimney and wipe our cares away, bringing us everything we’ve ever needed and wanted.
But watching these children join us in a combination of prayer and spell casting, I think no. There is something deeper in Ula’s anger over the Santa myth. That kind of magic isn’t nice. It is disempowering. In the Santa myth, all control lies with the big fat man in the jolly red suit. If the big fat man thinks we’ve behaved well enough, if we’ve followed instructions, if we’ve been nice and not naughty, then maybe he’ll give us what we want. Maybe he’ll help us out. Maybe he’ll fix Lisa.
That’s just a setup for failure and disappointment. That isn’t magic. Magic is about stepping into our power, about uniting our intentions with the natural world to create something better, something deeper. It is about acknowledging the role of our minds and bodies to create change, and then drawing upon the power of spirit to provide the energy to propel us forward.
Magic is about stepping into our power, uniting our intentions with the natural world to create something better.
We go around the table, and each of us offers our prayers and blessings. As we finish, I see tears in the corner of Lisa’s eye. She wipes them away quickly.
In my mind’s eye, I replay the journey of those tears. I envision those tiny drips of salty water cleansing any lingering bad cells from her body. I picture her hand, easily wiping them away, leaving her free and purified to drink in life.
None of us around that table can fix Lisa. Just like we cannot fix the problems of the world. But in that moment, in that circle of hands, I realized that, although we cannot do it alone, it cannot be done without us. We should never wait around for Santa’s magic. We are the magic.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.