That First Christmas



The tinsel is on the tree—and lots of it. I have purchased some, but not all, Christmas presents. I have taken the time to drink cocoa with a little bit of schnapps (or was it schnapps with a little bit of cocoa?) with my husband and build a gingerbread house with my daughter and little granddaughter. I’ve watched as many Christmas movies as I could stand and in fact at this moment, I’m watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. My Christmas cards are ready to be mailed. (Those of you who know me know this is a complete and utter falsehood. Hope Santa’s not reading my blog.)

We have jobs, a warm house, cars that start, food in the fridge and cable. We have lots and lots of love. We don’t need much to be happy and we’re so grateful for what we have.

For me, it hasn’t always been this way. In 1996, I took a very brave step; I took three children and left a broken eight year old marriage. I had no job. I had no car. What I did have was a house to rent courtesy of my mother who had been trying to sell it. I had a nut of a brother who was twenty four at the time, recently out of the Navy, and willing to split the rent with me…and my three young children. (see? A NUT!!)

I moved into the house on October 20, 1996. My children were three, five, and seven at the time. I was petrified. I was heartbroken. I was twenty nine. I was alone. I had no money, and Christmas was two months away.

Needing a job, I started a daycare because I was already watching my five month old nephew and another childhood friend needed a sitter as well. I didn’t have a car, and I couldn’t afford a sitter even if I had one. To say things were lean would be the understatement of the decade. I counted pennies. I made menus. I swallowed my pride so many times I lost count. I cut corners, coupons, and hair.

Help came in the form of free milk here, grocery gift certificates there, and a charitable drop off of a laundry basket with a big turkey and all the fixings. Family helped immensely too, with groceries and cash and letting me borrow vehicles when I needed to. I got by. I didn’t know at that point that it would be 5 more years until I had enough money to buy my own car.

That first Christmas alone? Let’s talk about that.

From the time my kids were old enough to be familiar with what happened at Christmas, Santa had been the only one who had put presents under the tree. Every single thing was unwrapped because they all came from Santa. It’s what his family did, so it’s what we did. I didn’t like it. In my family, one thing (the identifying present, if you will) came from Santa, and the rest were from Mom and Dad.

That first Christmas alone, I wanted for there to finally be things under the tree from me. Not from Santa, not Grandma, but me…mommy.

Consulting homemade lists with colorful snowmen and Christmas trees drawn on them, I purchased what I could for the kids with the little money I had. A Santa program for the underprivileged at our local fire department plumped up the area under the tree; even I didn’t know what was in them.

As the hours ticked closer to Christmas Day, however, I lost my nerve about putting wrapped presents from me under the Christmas tree. What if the kids thought Santa forgot about them? They had already been through so much, being witness to first the yelling and fighting that was the precursor to the much icier arguments. Those eventually signaled the end of our ill-fated marriage. What if they thought Santa didn’t give them as much because they were naughty and that’s why their parents split up? If the presents were all wrapped, from me, would my young children think Santa had deserted them as well?

It was bad enough that I would be splitting the holiday with their father. Emotions were high. Feelings were hurt. Finances were not just strained, they were practically nonexistent and the worst part of it was the kids knew it. They were on free lunch and hand-me-downs. They were hurting, too, and their hurt came out in crying jags and naughty behavior, despite the fact that Santa was in town. They were just three, five, and seven, after all.

In the end, I decided keeping the Santa continuity was more important than whether or not I was able to put a “from mommy” label on a present under the tree. I wanted them to know if nothing else, Santa had not deserted them. Everything could be from Santa, just like always. The kids would feel safe on Christmas Day, knowing Santa was still judging them to be worthy of being on the nice list.

I waited for the children to go to sleep on that first Christmas alone. I dragged the Christmas gifts I had purchased down the stairs quietly, and added each of their unwrapped gifts to the three separate piles that were under the tree, one for each child.

I found that if I placed their gifts from fire department Santa with the unwrapped gifts from the yours truly Santa just so, it actually looked like a lot of presents under the tree for my little ones. Happy with at least that bit of knowledge, I crawled up to bed.

Predictably, the next morning they were up with the birds. With shining eyes they peeked down the stairs and came to get me, begging me to come downstairs so that Christmas could begin.

I obliged. I threw cinnamon rolls in the oven and made coffee and bleary-eyed, watch them situate themselves in front of the tree in front of their presents. They oohed and aahed over each and every one of them, including the ones that we all were surprised at; model airplanes and coloring books, dolls and remote controlled cars.

It was then that my son turned to me, confusion written on his face. “But Mom, where are the ones from you?” Three sets of eyes turned my way expectantly.

I hadn’t banked on the fact that they were a year older. That actually they were almost eight, six, and four and old enough to know that parents needed to buy kids presents. After all, they’d seen the commercials.

Almost twenty years later, I’m not sure exactly what I said to him. I’m sure it was something along the lines of “I thought you guys were so good this year that I gave all my money to Santa so he could get you extra stuff,” or something like that; my undercaffeinated, depressed brain doesn’t think well at that time of the morning which if I remember was approximately 4:30 a.m. Whatever it was I said seemed to mollify him, but I will never forget the look of confusion and maybe a little hurt on his face.

The next year, and thank God most years after that, things got better financially but poor Santa…he was limited to one unwrapped present from then on.

The rest came with a tag that proudly said, “from Mommy.”

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