My parents’ economic situation vacillated wildly between boom and bust; there were times when we had more than plenty while there were others in which we had practically nothing at all, in which we were scraping the bottom of the proverbial bucket.
I didn’t understand it then, and I still, even in adulthood, have not been able to understand it. Both my parents were college educated professional people, so what can explain those rough spots in my childhood when we had practically nothing? Someday I will ask them. But it was during those times of bust that my hope, my faith, my belief in magic, deepened.
I remember one Christmas in particular. I had to have been maybe as old as twelve or thirteen at the time. We were in one of those bust periods. Things had gotten so bad that year that my parents finally gave in and accepted public assistance.
But I guess cabinets stacked with government peanut butter and powdered milk and juice and other foods is better than a cabinet stacked with nothing at all, but I know this weighed heavily on my father, a fiercely proud man. In fact, once I saw my mother bring the food into the house, I knew we had hit rock bottom.
The closer we came to Christmas, the direr our situation became. And the general malaise that had settled over our household worsened when my father drug in the most anemic Christmas tree I had ever seen in an effort to raise our spirits. Instead of lifting our spirits, that tree instead became a symbol of our lack.
So, our mother began to prepare us early for a disappointing Christmas. “Children, I don’t know what kind of Christmas we will have this year,” she would tell us. And because I am the oldest, she would pull me aside and try to explain to me the best she could what was happening so that she might enlist me in tamping down the expectations of my younger brothers and sisters.
And I tried to understand. I did. But I am sure you understand the difficulty of making a child understand something so complex. When I made mention of Santa Claus to my mother, her face at once became a mask of disbelief and pity.
However, in face of such a stark reality, isn’t it only natural that a child should reach for the only surety in his or her life—their naïve but unshakable belief in magic?
On Christmas Eve, my father left the house long before I got up, and I did not see him the whole of the day. My mother sat around wringing her hands and looking forlorn and making hushed phone calls. I spent the day hoping against hope that Santa Claus was real because by this time I realized that only elves and magic could help up at this point.
Late in the evening my father finally called, and after a short hushed phone conversation with him, my mother put my brothers and sisters to bed, let me know that she had to step out for a few, and left me in charge. But the moment she closed the door behind her, I fell fast asleep.
In the morning, I awoke to the smell of a baking ham and greens and other Christmas delectables. I took a second and swallowing the lump in my throat, and not knowing what to expect, but clinging steadfastly to my belief in magic, I quickly and excitedly woke up my brothers and sisters.
When we rushed into the den, there my mother stood wiping her hands on her apron and displaying the biggest smile I had seen on her face for quite some time. “Merry Christmas,” she exclaimed. “Santa Claus has been very good to somebody this morning. But be quiet as possible. You don’t want to wake up your daddy. He’s awfully tired this morning.”
She stepped aside to reveal our little anemic Christmas tree with gifts piled high and wide underneath. And we tore into them with an amazing fervor. And then that afternoon, we had a feast the likes of which we had not seen in quite some time.
Later that night, our faces greasy from leftovers, we debated who should give credit to for such a great Christmas, Santa or Daddy. Perhaps, because I was the oldest, I should have had more sense, but I threw my support solidly behind Santa. Even though I believed, or in the back of my mind suspected, that we had such a wonderful Christmas due to the machinations of my father, I still needed to, had to, cling to my belief in Santa Clause.
I had to believe that there is a propitious force present everywhere and in all things that picks up where your efforts fall far short.
When the chips are stacked against you, when nothing is going your way, and when you have done everything within your power to overcome but nothing seems to be working, perhaps then it is time to remember when we still believed in Santa Claus, when we still believed in magic, and know that somehow something positive will happen, and things will work out in our favor.