I have very fond childhood memories surrounding Christmas. Even though we had nine kids and little means, I always remember Christmas as a favorite time of year. Mom worked hard to make it special. We strung popcorn for the tree, sung tons of Christmas carols, and baked cookie after cookie in anticipation of the big day.
I clearly remember sneaking down the stairs on Christmas Eve and checking out our loot, which was always laid out neatly across the couch. We would always have a new pair of pajamas and a hat or scarf with mittens, or slippers lovingly crocheted by Mom. If other gifts were wrapped, I don’t recall, but we would also receive something fun, yet small; like a doll outfit, book, or board game.
I have vivid memories of our stockings, hung “by the chimney with care,” even though we had a chimney and no fireplace. The stocking always contained fruit (apple, orange), nuts in the shell, old-fashioned Christmas candy, and maybe a tiny trinket of some kind. Santa also always added candy canes to our Christmas tree before he left. It was magical.
The day that I learned that there was no Santa has never left my mind. I recall watching TV, becoming giddy, exclaiming, “I can’t wait for SANTA to come!” I remember Mom calling me to her bedroom and breaking the news. The only words I remember her saying are, “no Santa.” I was devastated; the fantasy I had enthusiastically embraced year after year was now over. With six older siblings (four of them brothers!), it was a miracle that I had still believed, but I did. No Santa?! I was heartsick, and it had little to do with gifts and everything to do with no longer being able to believe in something as good and pure and loving as Santa. (If you know my childhood, you can appreciate how I needed that fantasy.)
Years later, even though I had grown up, I resented my mom for telling me the truth about Santa before I felt ready to hear it. I even complained to a few friends that she had been insensitive and thoughtless to ruin it for me when I was clearly not ready to hear the truth. I puzzled as to why she would do that. I wondered if she thought I was too old to believe? (I don’t remember how old I was.) I even asked Mom about it, and she said she honestly had no memory of it.
Then one day, while reading a Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul book, I read the reason my mom had blown Santa’s cover. (No, it wasn’t actually her story, but it could have been.) For the mother in the story, financial survival was a daily struggle. She worked hard to put food on the table and clothes on her daughter’s back, but she often had to send her to bed with a growling stomach. When Christmas Eve arrived, she knew she had nothing to offer her daughter. She was a wonderful child; thoughtful, sweet, helpful. The mother felt horrible that her little girl would find nothing under the tree on Christmas day, and she feared that knowing that Santa brought toys only to good little boys and girls, she would think she was undeserving of Santa’s gifts. So, she told her daughter the truth about Santa. The young woman writing the story was sharing it because she was grateful.
It was then that I understood Mom’s likely motivation that day so long ago. Although she must have known it would disappoint me, she worried more about the impression I would be left with to have so little from Santa that year. If I knew, she might also be able to provide at least something to my two younger siblings. Rather than selfishness, she was acting out of desperation and out of love. Such are the realities of living in poverty during this time of year. And while I still remember that day, I no longer hold resentment for it. I joyously recall our Christmases, and I am grateful for having a mother who taught me that Christmas is not all about Santa.
[Originally posted November 27, 2007]