12/21/2012 11:57 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

The Night Before

So it was the night before the last Christmas my daughter might reasonably have been expected to anticipate Santa. She had already questioned how such a large man -- "He's so big, Dad, and you know it" -- could squeeze down the chimney of our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her three older brothers had surrendered to the form realism takes when it is governed by skeptics. Her barely older brother was kind enough to restrain his agnosticism in her presence. Her two much older brothers were doing what they could, along with her mother and me, to preserve and prolong the little girl's faith.

Protecting innocence -- childhood itself -- is on everyone's mind in this particular season far more than usual. Santa Claus, the magical stranger bearing gifts, becomes a hopeful metaphor in the effort to give young children a little more time, staving off the onslaught of the world. In that earlier season my daughter was simply having her doubts.

When she'd been too young to write she dictated a note for Santa Claus to leave on the hearth underneath the stockings she and her brothers posted on the mantel. A year earlier she'd been able to write her own note and all she said was she hoped Santa would like the cookies and milk she set out for him, assuming the snack would help sustain St. Nick on his global trajectory. The next morning, Christmas Day, she was gratified to find only crumbs on the hearth and a few drops of milk left in the glass.

The year of her last Santa faith, however, she wrote, "if your really hear please leave a riban and bell off your sled." She was so eager to experiment with her new literacy, largely self-taught, that just after Thanksgiving when she was sent to her room for some infraction involving the cat, she shortly shoved a note to the jailer under her door. "Dear Dad, I hate you. Love, Tonia."

When her mother and I read her instruction to Santa, we gulped. A ribbon was no problem, but a bell? We had no bells in the apartment, not even the little silver tinkly kind people sometimes attach to wrapped gifts. It was hard enough just getting her into bed. By the time we convinced her to stay there -- "He'll never be here as long as you're up, so please don't come out of your room again" -- and then finished our own last-minute wrapping along with stocking stuffing, it was midnight. It was after midnight when we made one more search. No bell anywhere.

I went downstairs. Our building was huge, pre-war, with more than 200 apartments. I greeted everyone who came in, explaining the problem. Did they by any chance happen to have a little bell in their apartment that they wouldn't mind lending for the occasion since we had no bell of our own? I'd return it promptly the day after Christmas. Neighbors, in the New York sense of living in the same building even if we didn't know each other, were sweet and sympathetic. A lot of them were coming in from Christmas Eve parties and family gatherings, but no one had a bell. One man offered an old rein that could as well have been used on a reindeer as a horse, and a woman had a small needle-pointed pillow that might comfort an old man on a sleigh, but our daughter was a literalist who would never go for presumed sleigh trappings. The fact was no bells were to be had.

I gave up and was heading for the elevator when a woman I'd never seen before, a complete stranger, made her entrance. She was alone. A handsome woman with a dignified bearing, ageless, anywhere from late thirties to early fifties. I apologized for accosting her, hastily told my story. "I have a bell," she said, "and your little girl can keep it."

She lived in the back of our large building, and I followed her through the cavernous lobby, lengthy as a basketball court, which gave us a chance to introduce ourselves. I asked if the party she was coming from was a good one. "Midnight Mass," she said. I asked about her work, and she said she was an ethicist, helping students learn the difference between right and wrong, how to make decisions when the difference wasn't clear but as complicated, in the way contemporary quandaries often are, as a labyrinth. She deserves her privacy here, but her name was as traditionally Jewish as if it had been, for instance, Deborah Rosenbloom. I asked if Midnight Masses were a cultural event she enjoyed. "I'm Catholic," she said, "I'm always there." She found the bell quickly in her apartment. I asked if she would join our family for plum pudding the next day. She said no, she had plans. I thanked her for the bell and hurried off to finish Christmas Eve chores.

The night after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut I went to a Handel concert. As she began the program, the choral director said she hoped the music would do whatever music can do to lift the audience's spirits from the tragedy of the day before. The reverential Hallelujah Chorus ended the program, booming so it almost burst the confines of the church. It could not be a restoration of innocence, but it declared a possibility of redemption. For the first time in years I thought of the ethicist in the lobby and wondered if she was finding refuge at a performance of the Messiah. I had never seen her again.

The bell the ethicist gave me was brass, perhaps three inches high with a clapper that would have had no trouble resounding from a sleigh through the night sky. In the morning the little five year old bought it, the bell, the ribbon, a final year of pure belief. Even the non-belief of her six year old brother wobbled. He told his best friend, "I know, I don't either, but my sister got a bell from his sleigh."

This was long ago. Both sister and brother are now so grown up they moved across the country and have homes of their own. But as I descended into sleep after the Messiah concert I thought of all the ways innocence is lost, the moral imperatives that attend these melancholy moments, mostly benign, once in a ghastly while inescapably horrific. Did it matter to anything in the universe? I was unable to escape a reflection about the woman in the lobby. The individual who began what would later become the Christian Church was, among other things, also an ethicist, versed in the separation of right from wrong, steeped in faith, born Jewish.

Peter Davis is a writer and filmmaker who won an Academy Award for his film on the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds.