30 years ago, nine days before Christmas 1986, my sister Susan was born. We had learned two days earlier that she was going to be stillborn. I was 13 at the time. It was my first real experience with death and in the days that followed I learned certain things. That life has a startling way of moving forward even when it feels like it should have stopped, for instance. That it’s possible to momentarily forget grief and be sideswiped by its return. That my grandmother could cook a meal and clean a kitchen like a normal person. That my grandfather could be funny. That people feel the same but often behave differently when they hurt.
A mere week after we held a small burial for Susan, it was Christmas. We attended Christmas Eve children’s mass as usual. After service, several people came to offer condolences to my mother. I was sticking pretty close to her side those days and although I don’t remember anything that was said, I do remember my mom shedding tears while talking with people. We went home in a pretty somber mood.
Later that evening my mother and a couple of us sibling were in the kitchen preparing a beef tenderloin and mashed potatoes for our traditional fancy Christmas Eve dinner when the door bell rang. When we got to the door, there was a large sack of presents on the front steps but no one in sight. The presents were simply labeled to our family, from Santa. My brother went out to check around the bushes or look for a trail in the snow, but found nothing. Whoever had left it had made a clean escape.
We took the bag inside and everyone began opening the gifts. They were little things like boxes of candy, card games, scented soaps, small toys and such. But as we opened them my mother and I kept exchanging confused glances. Who had done all of this? Who ever had left these gifts had gone to a great deal of trouble, but had left no trace of their identity. It was all from Santa. Finally, after the last gift had been opened, I turned to my mom and said, “you don’t really think Santa left these, do you?” She just shook her head and said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Once the gifts were opened and the mess of opening them was cleared away, we went back to preparing dinner with much higher spirits than we’d had just a few minutes earlier. I wondered if maybe this was how Santa worked these day; only coming to those who needed him. Maybe there really was magic and we just hadn’t needed evidence of it until now.
Later that night, my brother found the smoking gun which gave away the identity of our Santa. The last name of a family friend was written in small letters on the plastic wrapper of a box of candy. Bingo. It wasn’t a fat man in a red suit, but it was magic, just like I suspected. The gifts had been left by a young widow, a woman with three kids 10 and under whose husband had died suddenly just a year and a half earlier. On the same day that my youngest brother was born, no less. It was only their second Christmas without him yet she and her children had taken the time to wrap dozens of presents to lift our spirits. It helped. A lot.
I’d just like to encourage you to do something special for someone who is facing a dark Christmas. Something up-close-and-personal. Helping through charities is great, but there’s just nothing like being able to spot a need which no one else is going to meet to make the sort of difference which will still be remembered dearly 30 years later.
BTW, in cased you missed the recording of “The Christmas Bird” I shared a couple days ago, you should go check it out. It’s great for kids – and only 11 minutes long. Consider it my wee Christmas gift to you and yours.