When I was a child, my mother cried whenever she reached the end of The Polar Express during our annual December readings of the now-classic tale. I didn’t know why the ending made her eyes shine with tears and her voice break with emotion, but my voice broke, too, when I read the tale to my own small daughter on the night of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, just three years ago this December.
I didn’t understand my own tears until I read The Polar Express again this month, in the wake of attacks in Paris, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino, and in cities and towns across America.
Three years ago, I learned about the Sandy Hook shootings in the early darkness of a Finnish evening. My family and I stood in the waiting room of the Turku train station, about to board a northbound overnight express to the city of Rovaniemi in Lapland, just south of the Arctic Circle. Idly, I checked Facebook on my phone, but instead of the usual casual updates, I found the tragic news of Sandy Hook staring back at me from my friends’ feeds.
It was morning on the East Coast, evening in the Nordic darkness. My daughter Laurel, then three years old, jumped happily before me. She played with the toys she’d brought for the journey, clearly joyous as she thought of trains, reindeer, and a real Lappish winter wonderland.
My partner’s eyes met mine over the head of our playing daughter, the same fear reflected on our faces. What kind of world did we live in? Surely, this time, there would be some change?
That night on the train, I read The Polar Express to Laurel for the first time. I had downloaded it to my iPad, but Chris Van Allsburg’s gorgeous images shone just as brightly from the glowing screen. Laurel’s small body nestled against mine and her father’s as I read her the story. In the story, a boy lies awake in his bed on Christmas Eve, “listening for a sound—a sound a friend had told me I’d never hear—the ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.” Instead, the boy heard the creaking, hissing sounds of a steam engine, magically appearing in the street outside his window.
Even as the Polar Express of the story traveled north through a lonely wilderness, our train sped quickly north, too, under a snowy sky, just days before the winter solstice. We leaned against each other in the lower bunk of the tiny sleeping compartment. I looked out the window, wondering if I’d see the shadowy shapes of wolves like those in the book, but all I saw was darkness.
News reports and updates about Sandy Hook continued to flood the Internet from across the Atlantic. At Sandy Hook, children not that much older than the daughter curled beside me had been slaughtered as they learned.
That night on the train, I cried when we came to the end of the book. In the story, after Santa gave the boy the “first gift of Christmas” – a bell from his own sleigh – the boy lost the bell when it fell out of a hole in his bathrobe pocket. He found it again the next morning under the tree, in a small box with a note signed “Mr. C.” The boy shook the bell, and it made a beautiful sound, but his parents could not hear it. “That’s too bad,” they said, “it’s broken.”
I never expected that I, too, would cry when reading stories to my children. My grandmother (who often visited at Christmas) always cried at the end of The Littlest Angel, as my mother did for The Polar Express. I wondered, but did not know, what it was about these stories that moved these beloved adults so deeply.
It caught me by surprise when my voice broke as I read the beloved story to my daughter. Thinking of the children and staff members in Newtown, Connecticut whose lives had been cut short made too strong a contrast with the strange joy of reading The Polar Express on what came so close to a parallel journey. I forced out the final words:
“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even [my sister] Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
When my mother finished reading the story, my brother Tommy and I would run to find the silver bell that we called our sleigh bell. It was as large as a tennis ball, and hung from the back door’s knob on a festive, knotted red rope. Its sound was full and resonant, so very different from the small tinkling of an ordinary jingle bell. My brother and I would take it off the doorknob and shake it loudly and gleefully, calling out, “I hear it, I still hear the bell!” My mother doesn’t believe in Santa, of course, but she believes in the spirit of Christmas, in the season’s spirit of hope, love and joy. When she reads the story to her grandchildren, she still smiles through her tears.
I fell asleep on the train with Laurel’s small body pressed against mine. For once I found myself oblivious to the seemingly endless rituals of a toddler’s bedtime. Instead, my every sense took in the rise and fall of her breathing. My daughter was there, next to me, close, beloved, protected, if only for a moment.
Once again I’m reading The Polar Express to my children–Laurel has a sister now–in the wake of other tragedies in another December.
This year, though, I did not cry, and the lack of tears helped realize why the story moves me.
I cry because I want to believe—not in Santa’s sleigh, but in a world where I can still hear the ringing bell of hope. I want a December where the holiday season truly means the return of hope and light to the world, not the mournful irony of tragedy in the darkest time of year.
I don’t want the bell to fall silent for me. I don’t want to be like the boy’s parents, friends, or even his sister: deadened to the possibility of hope in the darkness. This year, though, in the wake of scores of deaths, hope is harder to hear; it is harder to truly believe that a better world is possible.
The Polar Express reminds me, though, to listen for the ringing of bells. It reminds me that even in the winter darkness, there are those for whom the bells always ring clearly. May that hopeful sound never fall silent, for any of us.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.