This year's winter solstice is scheduled for Dec. 21, but for all those children who lie in wait for the bearded man in the red suit, Christmas Eve is always the longest night of the year, and the one with the shortest sleep.
Those visions of sugar plums won't seem to dance on Christmas Eve, watchful eyes won't close, and children study the ceiling, as alert as a German shepherd listening for the can opener.
A mystery awaits in the stockings or under the Christmas tree, and the child's imagination illuminates with possibilities. Each gust of wind through the pine trees and each creak of the staircase sounds like a reindeer's hooves touching down on a rooftop.
In the morning comes the frenzy, when the tree loses its bounty and each box is unmasked.
As torn wrapping paper adorns the floor like a fresh snowfall, there is a slight feeling of loss. The sadness of not getting what you wanted or the tragedy of getting it.
There are new toys and books, but that anticipation, held so tightly, is now gone, and the mystery has been solved.
From that point, what endures are the memories, and, perhaps, one or two presents so outstanding they cannot be forgotten. I'm grateful for all the presents I've received over the years, the ones that didn't fit, the books that were obviously intended for someone else, and certainly for that one Rube Goldberg contraption.
The Mouse Trap board game looked like a living cartoon on our TV, an irreverent perpetual motion machine resembling the offspring of Henry Ford and Monty Python.
You crank the gears and then it swings into action, sending a boot careening into a bucket, which spills a marble down a flight of stairs, triggering a catapult that sends a diver into a bucket causing the mouse trap to tumble and ensnare its prey. Or something like that.
I remember that the game came with dice and plastic cheese, but it never seemed like something to play, it was a spectacle to behold.
Only the thing didn't work. Either the marble would get stuck on the stairs or the diver would sustain serious injuries in a failed attempt to make it to the bucket, or that mousetrap would obstinately cling to its perch.
It was the first time I realized that sometimes, people on television lie.
The following December, when those fantastic commercials showed up again, I was a changed child, and the seeds were sown for me to become the cynical adult I am today.
The other awful gift was courtesy of my aunt, who thought I'd be interested in a big book by a dead English guy.
She was sure I'd like it: "He's witty," she told me.
That book collected nothing but dust for at least a year, or maybe two. I finally opened it, the illiterate in full pursuit of
something illicit, and then it slowly dawned on me that Oscar Wilde was fantastic.
At the next family gathering my young cousin popped two balloons.
"To lose one balloon may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two seems like
carelessness," I commented. I hope my aunt was proud.