Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa, Is That You?

My eldest daughter, Elana, is almost four.  She's beginning to understand giving, and more importantly to her, receiving.  To Elana, December is a magical month filled with Hanukkah, Christmas, parties, presents and cakes.  It's a time when Daddy doesn't go to work and we visit grandparents.  Since we live in San Francisco, it's also the one time of the year we see snow, even if only for an hour or two.

I remember vividly the Christmas I was her age.  My older brother and I lived with our mom in a small duplex a few blocks from a small and depressed downtown in rural Oregon.  Our parents had been unpleasantly and somewhat bitterly divorced for a few years and my mom, who had just finished earning her elementary teaching degree at a local college, was a first-year teacher in a very deprived Native American town a few miles down the highway.  Our savings account was empty and my mom was struggling to get off welfare.  My brother and I knew that we had less money than our friends at preschool and we prepared ourselves to expect little under the tree come Christmas morning.

On Christmas Eve my mom, Sam and I gathered near the tree to sing Christmas songs, eat sugar cookies and open one present each.  The living room was sparsely furnished: a couch, chair, coffee table and a lamp or two casting a dim light on the tender family moment.  I also remember a large, impressive tree, standing higher than the tallest member of our family.  The tree was decorated with lights, tinsel, ornaments and candy canes, and was as close to perfection as a toddler could imagine.  That night I opened a present from my Aunt Chris.  Although I can't picture the exact toy, I distinctly recall the aroma of Strawberry Shortcake lingering on my pudgy fingers long after I went to bed.  My brother and I went to sleep excited to play with our new toys and even more eager to unwrap the few remaining presents that sat unopened beneath the tree.

That night I lay in my bed listening for sounds of Santa, knowing that he was a very busy man and might not make it to our house.  Still, I listened for footsteps on the roof and a jolly old man crashing through the chimney (which we didn’t have).  I imagined his sled skidding to a stop on our rain-covered roof and the stomping their hoofs while Santa completed his duties. 

The next morning, Sam and I awoke at dawn to find the cookies we left for Santa and the carrots we left for his reindeer appropriately missing.  Under the tree lay a large bag, bigger than anything I could have imagined, filled with toys.  The toys weren't wrapped, and they weren't fancy.  I remember dolls and cars, trains and blocks--the kind of toys one imagines Santa's elves creating at the North Pole.  Santa had come, and he had left his whole sack!  Sam and I looked to our mom in disbelief.  “Mom,” we whispered,  “Santa forgot his sack.  Now the other kids won't have any toys!”  After a few moments of reassurance, Sam and I dug into the bag with an energy only a child can muster at 6am on Christmas morning.

Nearly thirty years later, my mom still won't tell me how the toys in the sack found their way under our tree.  Maybe I don't really want to know; it lets me believe, if not in Santa, in the kindness of family, friends and possibly even strangers.

My kids will never get that kind of holiday.  They are growing up in a world without need or want.  They have both parents in one house and a mom who spends most of her waking hours taking care of their every need.  And I worry that they may never know that kind of pure magic, that kind of belief in the unknown.

I married into a Jewish family; in our home we celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday that brings not one, not two, but eight nights of presents!  Although many of those gifts are the practical type (socks and pajamas), it's still a lot of getting.  To lessen the load, Ted and I decided to make the 6th night of Hanukkah a night for charity- the kids give the money we would have spent on a present to someone in need.  Elana is beginning to understand.  “So, instead of getting a toy, I'm giving money to someone without a lot of princesses?”  She thinks it's nice in theory, and likes the smiles and gratitude she receives when she donates. She still enthusiastically awaits the 7th night, “Tonight we get a present, right?”

This year, after 8 nights of Hanukkah, Elana and Maisy felt pretty confident that they will open a present every day for the rest of their lives.  Each morning when I drop Elana at preschool, she asks hopefully, "Do I get a gift today?"  I was feeling a bit dismayed, especially since Christmas with my family was rapidly approaching and more gifts were coming.  Then a few days ago, I saw Elana counting the change in her piggy bank.  When I asked her what she was saving her money for, she replied “When it gets really full, I'm going to give it to the poor people who don't have food, or clothes, or toys, or a house, or fancy dresses.”

I was about to cry--that is, until she whacked Maisy for trying to swipe a nickel and I had to send her to her room for a time-out.


  1. The last paragraph just made me laugh out loud! Thanks. : )