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It was a Christmas Eve. My children were small, prime Santa Claus age, so Christmas morning was going to be a big deal. It certainly felt like it to me.

I was exhausted. The shopping during lunch hours, the last-minute errands: another Christmas, another scramble.

But here I was near the finish line. It had been a long evening of opening and closing closet doors and wrestling with wrapping paper. There were impossible assembly instructions to decipher and a mammoth search for more AA batteries. It was well after midnight before I could look around and say everything was ready.

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For the first year that I could remember, I wasn't into Christmas. Maybe this happens to everyone - memories of our own childhood holidays that bolstered us through early adulthood fade away, and we're left creating Christmas memories for our children without getting much out of the holiday ourselves.

I didn't want that to be true, but it was an explanation. I kept telling myself through December not to worry: By Christmas Eve I would pull around and all would be well.

I turned off the lights except for the ones on the tree and sat in the living room trying to give the spirit of Christmas one last chance. The stockings were ready, the fireplace screen moved away to give Santa lots of room. The piano bench was close by with milk and cookies for the big guy and carrots for the reindeer.

I had everything to be thankful for - the bounty under the tree was embarrassing, and the room was cozy and warm. I had a fridge full of food. Sleeping upstairs were my two beautiful children and husband, who loved me as much as I loved them. There was no sickness in the family, no money troubles. It didn't get any better than this.

I was just overwhelmed by all the work. Trying too hard to make things perfect for everyone else, I had forgotten to keep myself happy too.

How did my mother do it? I remember all the baking, the parties, the hand-sewn doll's clothes. She had a job, too. But I recall that she wasn't very happy at Christmas either.

My mom was no longer "whinnying with us," as Dylan Thomas would say, or I would have called her right then. I would have moaned and complained that it's all too much and why do I do this to myself? Great - now I was missing her and feeling sorry for myself. I did the adult thing and shut off the lights and went upstairs to bed.

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I paused for a moment to look out our bedroom window. It was a perfect Christmas Eve. A light snow had started to fall. The morning would be beautiful.

I fell into bed hoping against hope that the children wouldn't wake before the sun was up or, worse, wake up in the middle of the night and tear downstairs without me hearing them. For being so close, Christmas had never felt so far away.

Hours later, in the deepest part of the night and my sleep, a noise woke me. It was the sound of sleigh bells. My heart leapt and I immediately thought, "Santa Claus."

I jumped from the bed to the window and peered out through the falling snow. What I saw was a dog, a big dog, galloping down the street on a long leash with sleigh bells. At the other end of the leash was a man desperately trying to keep up.

The ringing was just as I'd always imagined it would be: softened by the snow, marking out the reindeers' long stride.

The sweet sound faded as the pair moved out of my view down the dark street. I headed back to bed knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep - my heart was still thumping in my chest. What I had wished for all my childhood years, to be woken on Christmas Eve by the sound of sleigh bells, had finally happened.

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At that moment Christmas came back to me. And just in time, for it was Christmas. I didn't recognize the dog or the man running down my snowy street at 4 a.m. Nor would I ever find out, for it has never happened again.

I think about that Christmas Eve every year - and that wonderful person who got up in the dead of night to string a leash with bells, wake the dog and run by our sleeping houses - and I silently thank him.

Because for two, maybe three, whole seconds as I lurched from the dream world to this one, I believed again, a grown woman believing with all her heart in Santa Claus. I have never received such a precious gift.

Laurie Brown is the host of The Signal on CBC Radio 2 and lives in Toronto.

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