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December 15, 2023

I Still Hear the Bell…

We wrap up this year’s Holiday Author Blog series with Allison Pataki, the New York Times bestselling author of THE TRAITOR'S WIFE, THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS, SISI, THE QUEEN'S FORTUNE and THE MAGNIFICENT LIVES OF MARJORIE POST, as well as the memoir BEAUTY IN THE BROKEN PLACES. Her upcoming novel, FINDING MARGARET FULLER, publishes on March 19th and is an epic imagining of the life of Margaret Fuller --- America’s forgotten leading lady and the central figure of a movement that defined a nation. In 1985, Allison’s aunt gave her and her siblings a copy of the just-released THE POLAR EXPRESS for Christmas. It quickly became a Christmas Eve tradition that her family would gather around and read Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved book before bedtime. What a joyous, comforting and emotional experience it was…and continues to be!


Every Christmas Eve of my childhood, the last thing we would do before that giddy and reluctant bedtime was gather as a family onto the lumpy old couch in the living room and crack open our ancient copy of THE POLAR EXPRESS.

Well, maybe it’s not ancient; our copy of Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved book was given to us four Pataki kids as a Christmas gift from a book-loving aunt (thank goodness for those) on Christmas Day of 1985, which was the very year that Van Allsburg first published his now-iconic work. We are talking many years before Tom Hanks took the story to the silver screen and the franchise train rides began running across America. Thanks for being so ahead of the book trends, Aunt Damaris.

In a family of deep sentimentality and well-worn traditions, this book is one of the items to have celebrated the most Christmases with us. The tree changes each year, riding the ebbs and flows of the perennial family debate: multicolored or white lights? The wrapping paper and the gifts under the tree look different for each gathering. Even the people piling onto the couch change each year, as my siblings and I have grown up, moved away, moved back and married. New babies have come into the mix, some of them now not babies at all.

That copy of THE POLAR EXPRESS remains the same. It may get a bit more tattered with each passing Christmas, but like a treasured old guest, it always has its place in our home. It’s even been there when we’ve spent the occasional Christmas not at home, like that family trip we took to Austria and Hungary 20 years ago. I well remember my delight when my mom retrieved the book from her suitcase in a Salzburg hotel room. “It wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without THE POLAR EXPRESS,”she declared to our universal agreement. This book is sacrosanct.

My dad always starts off reading, and it’s a guarantee that he’ll be crying by the end of the first page. No, correction: it’s a guarantee that he’ll be crying by the end of the first paragraph. My mom generally has to take over at that point --- it’s a mission of mercy --- and she’s trying to stifle her laughs because we are now all giggling at how fulsome my dad’s tears are. We check to make sure he’s still breathing, and then we all take turns passing the book around, reading a page each. The babies who are now big kids join in the ranks of the reader rotation each year.

Regardless of age, we all marvel at Van Allsburg’s vibrant, crystalline illustrations. The stunning lyrics of his language are simultaneously simple and elegant and whimsical. We four original Pataki siblings always pause for a moment of appreciation when we hit the page that shows the four pajama-clad kids sitting inside the bright train who bear such a striking resemblance to our own four childhood appearances. Grandpa now tells our kids that the drawings were inspired by us.

By the last page, my dad can’t even get the words out, but he always wants to read that final bit: “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”

We know he’ll cry the hardest at that part, but by that time, most of us have joined him in tearing up. We can’t help but be moved, because we keep getting older, and life keeps changing, and a lot of the time it feels like life keeps getting harder. But this book and the timeless, unassuming beauty of its message remain. This book is always there, at home on Christmas Eve, to remind us that there are things in life worth believing in. Worth returning to. Worth valuing and celebrating. That faith and family and generosity and joy are what give life some of its deepest meaning and most treasured traditions.

I hope to always hear the bell. I hope to always seek out people along my journey who also will listen for the bell. I hope to live a life that celebrates and cultivates moments of awe and wonder and gratitude.

I keep getting older, and our family copy of the book looks a bit more worn with each passing year, but I’ll never stop approaching those pages with the joy of a child on Christmas Eve.