Do you still hear the bells?

Published 1:27 pm Saturday, December 22, 2012

Editor’s note: For the past week, like many other parents, I’ve held my children just a little bit longer and squeezed them just a little bit tighter. And as I’ve struggled with what to write about for this week’s column, it occurred to me that I had once written a column expressing exactly how I feel today. My children are now two years older than they were when the following column was written, but they are still just as captivated by the magic of Christmas. My wish for you this Christmas is that you are, too.

The other day my son, who is 6, and completely invested in the magic of the Christmas season, asked my wife if we could still hear the bells.

Of course he was referring to one of the great Christmas stories ever written, “The Polar Express.” It is the story of a young boy who, at the age when one’s faith in Santa might begin to waver, takes a magical Christmas Eve journey to The North Pole on a special train called The Polar Express.

The boy arrives at the top of the world to find himself in a bustling city amidst the thousands of elves who have just recently completed their year’s work and who have all gathered in the central square to see Santa off on his journey. Of all of the children who have made the journey together, Santa selects the boy to receive the first gift of Christmas. Given the choice of anything his heart desires, the boy chooses a silver sleigh bell pulled from the harness of one of Santa’s reindeer.

On the train ride home, the boy is devastated when he discovers he has lost the sleigh bell through a hole in his robe pocket. How could he have possibly been so careless to lose a present given to him by Santa himself?

But on Christmas morning, he and his sister discover that the bell, which Santa had found in the bottom of his sleigh, has been wrapped up and placed under the tree. The boy quickly unwraps the bell, and after carefully inspecting it and marveling in its beauty once again, begins to ring it.

He and his sister are captivated by the beautiful sound the bell makes. Their parents, however, remark what a shame it is, for the bell is broken.

Because they had long ago stopped believing in the magic of Christmas, they could no longer hear the ringing of the bell.

It’s been nearly a week since my son popped the question. I’m surprised at how much time I’ve spent thinking about him and his question, and the answer that I know lies truthfully in my heart.

I think I remember what the bells sounded like. I recall that they were beautiful and clear and unmistakable. I remember that I would first hear them sometime just after Thanksgiving, and they would get louder and louder in the weeks leading up to Christmas until they grew into a crescendo that made rational thought nearly impossible.

But over the years, like many of us, I’ve allowed the sound of the bells to be drowned out in my head by the noise created by the stresses and pressures that many of us associate with Christmas as grownups.

So for the last week or so, I’ve tried a few times to be still and just listen for the sound of the bells. And the greatest things happen when I do.

Almost on cue, my son or 3-year-old daughter will come bouncing into the room to excitedly proclaim they have spotted our personal family elf Hermie in his newest location high atop the Christmas tree. Or they’ll come tearing through the house, cheerfully announcing that Mama’s gonna let them help her make Christmas cookies.

Or, like Thursday morning, when our son proclaimed at 6:30 that he couldn’t wait anymore and wanted us to open the gifts he had personally selected at his school’s Secret Santa store. He meant it, and so two days before Christmas we opened some presents.

And as I opened up my new “Dad” keychain, and Stella looked up at me from the kitchen floor to proudly show off the 25-cent super ball that Whitman had picked out just for her, I looked at my son and saw a joy in his eyes that only comes from giving a $1 keychain to your daddy that you picked out all by your big-boy self.

And it got still in my house for just a moment, which doesn’t happen much. But it got still just the same, and I listened.

And just then, I heard a strangely familiar sound, and it was just as beautiful as I remember it from when I was a child. And it was at just that moment that I realized I could have heard the bells all along. It was just up to me to get still and listen for them.

TONY CLARK is the associate publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at