At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus as our Savior. That, of course, is the most important thing about Christmas. But Christmas is also a time we want to be with family and perhaps—for just a moment—linger on memories of Christmases past.
Two months ago I lost my brother. During my years as a young girl, he was my hero. When we grew up he was my protector and the one I could depend on when I needed a loving hug.
So today, I’m remembering.
I’m remembering my brother and my favorite Christmas. It’s fitting somehow that he was a major part of it for he was always very generous. And perhaps the first blushes of his gift of generosity began to blossom that year. At any rate, it was on that Christmas I learned how to experience true joy in the midst of all the trappings of the Christmas season.
My Favorite Christmas
Multi-colored lights on the houses in the hills above our house sparkled with a fairy tale promise of things to come. Every day a couple of new presents showed up beneath the tree. The restlessness that stirs within a 12-year-old girl as Christmas day approaches had reached a fever pitch. Tomorrow was Christmas day, and I couldn’t wait for it to come. Neither could my 17-year-old brother.
When we came down to breakfast, the smell of bacon greeted us but no cheery “good morning” from our mother as usual. We saw her speaking quietly on the phone, nodding her head, her eyes shaded with concern. She studied Johnny and me thoughtfully as we pulled our chairs up to the table.
After getting off the phone, she silently walked to the stove, brought a platter of eggs and bacon to the table, and sat down to join us. “I have something for you two to do today,” she began. “There’s a woman in our church with four children who has no money, and they’ll have no Christmas this year.” She paused as her eyes glanced from one of us to the other. “I told the church secretary that we would help out and get them some gifts. I’d like for you two to go downtown today and pick out some presents for the children. They all need pajamas, and you can get each of them a toy.” She reached for the paper she’d set beside her plate. “Here are their names, ages and sizes.”
Johnny and I felt very grown up and important that day as we drove downtown with a sizable amount of cash, shopping from store to store for the only presents these children would get for Christmas. With the sound of Christmas carols in the background, I felt an awesome responsibility as we first picked out pajamas for each child and then headed to the toy store. If this were their only toy, it had to be special, something to really brighten their day. Johnny chose Lincoln logs for the older boy and a truck for the younger. I sorted through the entire shelf of dolls to pick out ones that would be perfect playmates for each of the girls. Johnny suggested we top it off with a present for the mom. He threw in a little money of his own that he made at the Safeway to make up the difference. Then we headed for home to do the wrapping.
Since I had just emerged from childhood myself, the idea of playing Santa Claus loomed large in my mind. I loved the specialness of Christmas. I loved the surprises and the beautifully wrapped presents. Never before had the happiness of four children depended on me . . . and my brother.
Johnny obviously felt the same burden, and, as my older brother with a host of creative ideas, he, as usual, took the lead in devising the plan for the evening. It unfolded as an event that forever changed my idea of what makes a “happy” Christmas.
After dinner we had our traditional family Christmas Eve service in which we lit candles, read the Christmas story from the Bible, and gathered around the piano to sing Christmas carols. According to our usual practice, Mother tried to hit the right keys on the piano, and we tried to hit the right notes to match, but the occasional discordant sharps and flats added to the merriment. Our family celebration, like our family itself, was imperfect but full of grace.
Afterwards when it was getting late, we bundled the gifts into the Chrysler and drove to the house. Johnny and I sat in the back with the presents on our laps, my parents in the front. When my father got to the address, he pulled stealthily along side the unlit end of the house. Johnny and I gathered up the presents, carried them quietly to the front door and set them on the stoop.
Poised and ready to run back to the car, Johnny rang the doorbell. He and I raced to our waiting getaway vehicle and jumped in. My father took off and we laughed and chatted excitedly about what had transpired.
Remaining anonymous was part of the aura of the adventure. We felt that we had joined in the mystery of Santa Claus. For all these children knew, Santa Claus really did deliver the presents to their door that year. And for all we knew, perhaps that year we really did become Santa Claus. We hadn’t gone down a chimney, and we didn’t arrive on a sleigh, but we had a driver both lively and quick (my father), who took off as soon as the presents were left. And in our hearts we had the pure delight of making children happy by surprising them with gifts on Christmas morning.
That night as I climbed into bed, visions of sugar plums danced in my head as I imagined that mother going to the door and discovering the presents, the children finding them under the tree in the morning, and the myth of Santa Claus perpetuated for children who might have thought they’d been forgotten if we had not assumed his role.
I’m sure there were many presents for me under the tree at our house the next morning too. And I’m sure it was grand. But I don’t remember a single one I received. I only remember the dolls, the truck, the Lincoln logs and the pajamas we bought for four children we’d never met. And I remember speeding off into the night, exhilarated by the joy dancing in my heart over delivering these presents to this family the night before Christmas.
It was the year I played Santa Claus with my brother and the year I came to realize it’s really true, that old maxim: It really is better to give than to receive.