Thursday, December 29, 2011

Winter Magic: Frosty, Santa, and The Mirror of Erised

What I cherish most about Harry Potter is that, as a bah humbug adult in December of 2000, the Mirror of Erised inspired my lost childhood imagination.  To understand what I’m talking about, you must understand that as a kid I believed in magic, and winter was the most glorious time to imagine all kinds of supernatural possibilities.  I believed that snowmen could be made real like Frosty, I believed reindeer could fly, and I believed that Santa could be in all places at all times because he could stop time. 

Though I was no wizard like Harry Potter, I left my boyhood home to begin school in a new place - in 1975 my family moved from Gooding to American Falls, Idaho.  At age five I started kindergarten.  We were not sorted into Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin; instead you either went to the morning class or the afternoon class.  But I discovered I had a special power:  Only I could use the left-handed scissors.  And I must admit, I felt like Ron Weasley at the class gift exchange before the holidays.  Everyone else unwrapped a toy, but I received an orange knit hat.  The classmate, whose name I shall protect, laughed at me.  I did not let that trauma get me down.  In my mind I wondered if I could make it a magical hat, like that silk hat in the song about Frosty the Snowman.  I knew where my father hid his pipe, and I knew I could find buttons in my mother’s sewing kit.  Could I build my own living snowman?  When my class sang about Frosty with his corncob pipe and a button nose and two eyes made out of coal, I actually believed that Frosty could laugh and play just the same as you and me.  With that broomstick in his hand, thumpety-thump-thump I saw Frosty go.  Together, in my mind, we sled every hill at the golf course.

Across the Snake River from our new home was my father’s hometown, Aberdeen, where my Schelske grandparents, aunts, and uncles all lived.  Going to Aberdeen on Christmas Eve the next year was when winter’s magic reached its zenith for me.  We drove to aunt Jeannie’s and I discovered my own personal Hogwarts.  A home so large it had a long wooden table full of every kind of food like the Great Hall, televisions (our house only had one) in wall nooks like the talking portraits, a forbidden room with a kiln for firing vases and exotic statues - our own Chamber of Secrets.  And there was more than one Christmas tree.  I didn’t know that was allowed.  A Christmas tree in the living room, on the stairwell, in the billiards room, and in what I named the gift room.  A fire was lit in the hearth of the gift room, its light shimmering across the wooden floors, walls outlined in wood paneling with a thick cork wallpaper, and the decorative ornaments, ivy, angels, and all things Christmas.  The tree had presents underneath it, glorious presents for all us cousins.  And best of all, Santa would give come to give them.

Our favorite hangout - the billiards room - gave us a thrill akin to a Quidditch match.  There was a pool table, a poker table, and a dart board plus a closet full of wondrous games.  A fully stocked bar, which for the kids meant Coke, Pepsi, 7UP, and Dr. Pepper, meant that we stirred magical concoctions every bit as fun as butter beer.  There was even a fireplace that could be turned on by a light switch.  Just like Hermione taking her wand and saying, “illuminate.”  Only three words could get us kids out of the billiards room, “Santa is coming.” 

I was alarmed when I ran up to the gift room that first Christmas Eve.  A fire burned in the hearth.  I asked how Santa would come.  I was assured that he could come through another fireplace.  Boy did I feel dumb.  Of course.  I made sure the switch was off in the billiards room just in case.  Like Hagrid coming out of the sky on his flying motorcycle, I expected to hear Santa on his sleigh.  I listened for the reindeer to land, but all I heard was the “ho ho ho” as Santa came into the gift room.  I asked if I could see the sleigh, but Santa was busy and he enlisted me to help give out presents.  And this became our annual tradition.  But as time marched on, one year I found Santa’s stash in our car trunk and confirmed what everyone was saying at school - Santa didn’t exist. 

By 1995 I had graduated from Idaho State with a Master in Public Administration, married my lovely wife Caryn who got her Master in Theology on the same day, and moved to Chicago, Illinois.  At that point in my life I had quit reading, talking, or thinking fantasy in any way, shape, or form.  My wonderful aunt Jeannie then died of cancer, her family’s farm fell on hard times, and the house was sold.  My fairy castle was gone and so was the last vestige of the winter magic I once believed in.

In 2000, I followed my wife to Valparaiso, Indiana for her postdoctoral fellowship.  I grew grumpy getting up at 5:30am to commute to the University of Chicago for my administrative job in Cardiology, not getting home until 7:30pm each night.  According to my journal I got home in time for Vespers at Valparaiso’s Chapel of the Resurrection on Thursday, December 16.  The following Friday meant another long commute, and another long day at work, but I that night I stayed with friends in Chicago.  As I wrote in my journal:

“Saturday, December 16, 2000 Went to U.C. office.  Work on projections all morning.  At 2:00pm Caryn gets me on Ellis.  Drive to Monroe parking garage.  See the windows at Marshall Fields.  The theme is Harry Potter...” 

Every year we lived in Chicago we went to see those winter inspired windows, my favorite to that point having been scenes from How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  I enjoyed these fantastic displays of holiday commercialism.  But I was grumpy that day.  When we came to our first window I asked Caryn, “Isn’t Harry Potter that children’s book?”  I just couldn’t fathom what it had to do with the holidays.  What a waste of time.  Caryn tried to explain the game of Quidditch, but I didn’t get it.  Boys flying on broomsticks, preposterous.  How could my wife actually think about using such an absurd book in one of her theology classes?  Perhaps I was still grumpy from such a tight schedule.  We still had my holiday office party to go to later that night. 

But what made my eyes go wide was that last window.  The Mirror of Erised.  Caryn explained that erised is desire spelled backward, and what Harry Potter most desired was his dead parents.  I have to admit, my eyes moistened.  What a magical concept.  I asked myself, what did I desire most?  What should appear in the mirror?  I found myself wanting to see that little boy from American Falls who was so happy believing in magic.  But the Mirror of Erised showed me something else:  downtown Chicago became a winter wonderland full of magic.  With characters from those Harry Potter window scenes blown up into giant hovering statues on the inside of the store, Marshall Field’s became the largest fairy castle I’d ever seen, a place known as Hogwarts.  And after shopping in awe of the surroundings, we went outside and across the street to Skate on State.  Erised showed me kids on magical skates rising above the illuminated buildings at night, rising as high as the Sears Tower so they could skate figure eights through the two towering antennas, then the kids skated over Lake Michigan and landed at Navy Pier for hot chocolate. 

Erised came with me to the Magnificent Mile where we always shopped near the castle-like Water Tower, one of the lone structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  The mirror showed me that the Water Tower was actually a time machine to the distant past when dragons roamed the Earth.  It wasn’t Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that knocked over the lantern to start that fire, it was a dragon that came through the time machine to burn the city down.  The winter magic had returned.  I had to read Harry Potter.  That Monday at the Dune Park Station in Indiana as I waited for the South Shore Line, my forested surroundings became Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station.  J.K. Rowling’s mirror made it acceptable for Frosty to take that broomstick and ride it down the tracks beside my train.  I knew the innocent desire for imagination once more, because the Mirror of Erised showed me what I had forgotten - Fantasy Matters.