As far back as I can remember, a feeling of sorrow washes over me during the holidays. I can’t think of any word to describe it–it’s just sorrow. It started happening around the age of ten. I would start seeing Christmas lights in November, stores would play the familiar carols and Salvation Army bells would ring outside of our neighborhood department store. Although this feeling would envelop me each year, it still took me by surprise. I would ask myself “why?” Why does this happen to me? As a child, I never told anyone of these feelings. I knew we were poor, but I became intrigued, because at Christmastime it seemed like we had everything. There was a tree, sparkling lights, Christmas goodies and presents. We baked cookies and drank wassail. There were snowball fights and mittens. I couldn’t have possibly known it back then, but my Dad went to great lengths to make sure that Christmas was special. I didn’t know about his “behind the scenes” late night bargain shopping, working three jobs and going to graduate school. I knew he was busy and “at work” but I didn’t know how much he really put into our Christmas mornings.
I remember one particular year, things must have been pretty lean. My brother, sister and I all got bathrobes for Christmas. We had stockings with candy and a few small presents, but the excitement and anticipation of the “big box” under the tree was underwhelming to say the least. There’s a picture in an album of my sister and I standing in front of the Christmas tree that year, our eyes red from crying, our tears dried and forced smiles. My Dad said “sometimes we get what we want for Christmas, and sometimes we get what we need.” We lived in a tiny apartment in the student housing section while my Dad finished graduate school. Although we had food stamps, free hot lunch, hand me downs and second hand furniture, we knew we were loved and cherished. But this strange feeling of loss and sorrow still found me each year when I would hear the familiar note of a Christmas carol. I would come to learn that children had nothing. Children lived outside in streets, and slept in doorways on snowy nights. I couldn’t bear this thought and I started collecting toys and food during the holidays to give away. I would stand for an hour or longer at the mall or at church, reading all of the “angel” tags. In my mind I would search for each child’s story, piecing together what I could from tidbits of information scribbled on the small glittered tags. “Mary, 3 would like a doll.” My heart would feel the familiar weight, and I would close my eyes and be swept into a family’s living room, a 3 year old girl ripping the paper and ribbon from a soft cloth doll. “Jonathan is 7 and loves to play with trains.” I would carefully choose my tags from the tree, and hope that I had enough money saved to purchase and wrap the requested gifts.
By the time I was 14 I had a job. I had a jar in my dresser, and I would add money throughout the year to buy more toys at Christmas. As I got older, my job paid more and I would shop for groceries and deliver bags to my local church. I was always astounded at what seemed like such a small amount of food for fifty dollars. I would wander the aisles looking for treats, presents and the “special” foods of Christmas. Glancing into the food boxes at fire station one day, I saw cans of tuna and beans. I asked the woman at the front desk, “why are we giving poor people tuna fish on Christmas?” My naivety was clear and she explained “what people need isn’t always what people want…” I remembered the bathrobe Christmas. I couldn’t bear a family receiving cans of tuna fish and beans in their Christmas boxes. Where were the candy canes, where were the teddy bears, where were the chocolate Santas? I vowed to myself that while some gifts were “practical” no child should ever wake up on Christmas morning to tuna fish and a toothbrush. Certainly Christmas of all days called for magical treats and surprises.
I never told anyone of this silent soothing that went on inside of my heart during the holidays. As I would buy, wrap and deliver presents, my heart would feel a bit lighter, but there was always lingering anguish. As the years would pass into my early twenties, there was a first marriage and a new family. I still couldn’t shake the sorrow of Christmas. Every year, I would quietly continue to fill stockings and pantries and slip surprises into boxes at toy drives. I still didn’t tell anyone about my “Secret Santa” life. Even my former husband of years ago didn’t know I snuck presents into the local church. I didn’t want anyone to know of this hushed sorrow I carried at Christmastime. It would take having children of my own years later to begin to understand my inner sadness. To Be Continued………