Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

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Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

act of Christmas kindness, heartwarming Christmas, poor helping poor on Christmas, lesson of giving,

Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

24 thoughts on “Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

  1. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story. We had a tough year financially too but reading about your friend brings tears to my eyes. I have been despairing about not being able to buy Christmas gifts for my husband or family this year but then an idea popped into my head. I’m going to make all my siblings a very simple, traditional food that my grandmother made us as children. I’m the only one who cooks so I hope it will bring them some joy and good memories.

    And this has nothing to do with Christmas but rooting around in the basement over the last few days looking for old picture frames, I came across a length of fabric I’d completely forgotten about and made myself some bedroom curtains. My mood lifted considerably to make this discovery and also the fact that I can still sew, if only a straight seam! AND, I used the leftover living room paint to re-do my room which is not what I would have chosen if we had the money to buy more paint but it goes perfectly with my newly sewn curtains! I feel so proud that I made over my bedroom with zero cash out of found things in my own home and it looks terrific!

    Living frugally is teaching me many things about what I can and can’t live with. Most things I can live without. I’m considering personally challenging myself to not purchase anything over the next year apart from groceries. I think I could do it and I’m curious about what would happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My mother, er santa, stayed up late one year making presents.

    But the homemade Cabbage Patch kid had 6 fingers and only brought tears to the child who was short-changed!

    This holiday is out of control with commercialization – and food too.

    Too many parents think they can just *buy* a relationship with and happiness for their kids; that they can just drop the kids off somewhere and they will magically come back educated, mature, and socialized.

    But every time I start this screed I’m called a Grinch!

    Wonderful story, L.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My grandmother, dear soul that she was, used to make handmade clothes for the one solitary Barbie I owned. Knitted sweaters and tiny dresses. I’m sure these were made out of love and couldn’t have been easy to do (tiny armholes and all). But they were an absolute humiliation compared to my friends’ stash of Barbie clothes and accessories. I ended up hiding these clothes out of shame. It was bad enough my doll had to use a bedroom slipper as her convertible while everyone else’s Barbie drove a Barbie Dream Car. But your homemade Cabbage Patch doll wins the prize. Everyone knows Cabbage Patch dolls were magically made and given a name no other doll had. Sheesh.

      I rant about the Season of Excess too.


  3. Your story sharing made my Christmas! I also especially liked the images of the ice-frozen trees, reminding me that when things seems so unyielding and hard, that life-sap still flows deep within each of us. Sometimes we just need a child to remind us of eternal hope. Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was sitting around the table tonight with my husband’s family and we were talking about these types of anonymous gestures of kindness and love. There is something so filling about giving. Recently, I was talking with friends who recalled from their minimal upbringings strangers in grocery checkout lines buying their groceries at one time. They never forgot. But there’s something more to the giving than helping someone else, even. It really gives tremendous clarity to how much WE actually have- enough to share.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true Sarah. May none of us ever be so down that we have nothing to share.

      One of the most stirring books I read on that topic was Breakfast at Sally’s: One Homeless Man’s Inspirational Journey by Richard LeMieux. This man went from successful upper-middle class businessman to a homeless existence. It wasn’t the story of his slow climb back to hope that really touched me, it was the way that other homeless people reached out to help each other, truly sharing their last pennies. Absolutely worth a read.


  5. There is magic in doing something for people who will never know who we are. When we give unconditionally, we get so much more in return, I think. Here’s to random acts of kindness and senseless beauty!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The anonymous nature of giving is so important and sometimes so hard to uphold. Yesterday I tried to give a cashier $20 to help pay for the groceries of the woman ahead of me in line, who was frantically unloading egg cartons and cans of vegetables from around the kids in her cart. I whispered to the cashier to just include the bill or pretend she’d found it but of course, it didn’t end up that way since the cashier blurted it out to the woman in front of me. I assured the harried mom that I’ve been short many a time at the register and she gratefully accepted the money but I think both of us would have felt a lot better if the cashier had taken it as I tried to give it, as if she’d found it on the conveyor with the groceries. Oh well. At least I know I didn’t really need the gift card I’d intended to get with it.


  6. So what if I read it late…. by a few years ! But stories like this make the real meaning of Christmas more meaningful. I stay in a small community in Kolkata in India wherein we can easily relate this with our reality. This narration is worth repeating to my grandchildren ( 3 in number). Thanks….. this would be a good value education to them.


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