Christmas. A time of year filled with memories. As we mature we gather more and more of them. Some magical and bright filled with all the love and traditional cheer, others dark and lonely sometimes filled with regret, resentment or pain.
I was fortunate to have had a few years of magic. As a small child our family was wealthy and our Christmas holiday filled with big parties, holiday music, food, presents, Santa visiting in his red suit, turkey, a fully trimmed tree and the gift you had wished for under it. Like something out of a fairy tale those years live in my memory flickering with a soft candlelight glow. After my parents separated, we had a sudden wake up call to my 3 siblings and I staring at an almost barren tree with only four practical gifts. Our only company, our mother dying in bed.
After my mother passed away 1o years later and my sister took over we agreed to not give gifts at all. At 14 we strung cranberries and popcorn to decorate the tree, made our own music, ate a small meal we prepared together and learned the true meaning of the day. We were happy to have each other and truly thankful for it. To this day I cherish that present of a simple lesson learned at such a young age.
Married with small children years later I lived Christmas through my children’ eyes. Watching their joy and delight at the tree, food and presents was priceless. I couldn’t afford the gifts they always wanted but did my best to make their holiday special. Most poignantly years later my son shared a story that brought me to tears. At about age 5 or 6 he had wanted a large rubber lizard for Christmas. All his friends had them and of course, he wanted one too. On my meager Artist salary his mother and I didn’t have the money so I made him one out of paper maché. I made it bigger than his friends’ and airbrushed it with opalescent colors. On Christmas day he was so excited to open this large gift, sure it would be the lizard he longed for. His face dropped when he saw the one I had made. His disappointment painfully obvious. Most remarkably though he put a smile on quickly and thanked me anyway. No complaints ever. Later he put the lizard away in his room and rarely played with it. After the divorce when we were dividing up his things I thought I would donate the lizard or give it away but he refused to let it go. He brought it over to his mother’s new husband’s large home and kept it there. I had moved into a very small 1 bedroom apartment. My kids’ bunk bed was only 2 feet from mine and they shared a single bookshelf for both of their toys. We had no room for the large creature. I moved many times over the years of their childhood, moving into bigger places where they could have their own rooms and then later back into smaller places. My children lived with me on weekends until their teens at which point they would simply visit so there was no point in keeping expensive empty rooms for them. I forgot about the lizard and imagined it was long gone. One day I was over at my ex-wife’s house and visited my son’s room as he was preparing to go off to college. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The lizard was still there. Of all the incredibly expensive and I’m sure much longed for presents he had kept this poor old paper maché toy. I asked him about it and his answer has given me many a teary eyed moment since. He said, “I kept it because you made it. It wasn’t what I wanted but I pretended to like it. Now it reminds me of you and how hard you always try to make Christmas special.”
I choke with tears writing this especially since I always felt so badly about what I could not provide. I would often pick my children up from their mother’s huge estate at Christmas time to bring them to my house. They had everything a child could want. A fifteen foot professionally decorated tree with electric train running around the base and presents stacked as tall as a person. Their living room warm and cozy, Christmas treats on every table, games to play and a roaring fire in the hearth. I almost felt guilty bringing them back to my tiny apartment with a three foot tree on a table and only a handful of gifts. With my son’s single statement about the toy lizard, all the feelings of inadequacy vanished and I knew he had learned long ago what Christmas really meant even as I had at 14. Of all the gifts he could have given me I have cherished this one more than any other. Later my daughter shared a similar sentiment in a letter she wrote in class. The best gift we can give one another is love and acceptance. To receive it from my children has been priceless.