29 years ago tonight, my parents went to a holiday party and left me with my older sister and brother. I was six. She was 12. He was 14. When the car was safely gone from the driveway, my sister darted to my parents’ bedroom.
“What are you doing?” I asked, right behind her.
“Looking for our Christmas presents,” she replied as she hit the mother lode in my dad’s closet, behind a thin curtain of sweatshirts used to conceal the stash.
“That’s wrong. I am going to tell,” I told her.
And annoyed by me, she called my bluff.
“Don’t you want to know what you got from Santa Claus?”
Pardon? Those presents up in Dad’s closet were from mom and dad. I was no dummy. I knew our Christmas morning presents came from two sources: our parents and Santa Claus.
“Those are our presents from Mom and Dad,” I insisted.
“Oh yeah?” My sister eyed me, totally put out. And then she turned to a gift wrapped in white paper at her eye level. She pressed the paper firmly against the box it was covering.
“If you get Strawberry Shortcake from Santa Claus on Christmas morning,” she said, “then you know that mom and dad are Santa and Santa doesn’t exist.”
“Fine,” I answered, but a hint of doubt filled my mind. If I was honest, the whole Santa thing didn’t make much sense to a curious kid who pondered everything. Just the sheer volume of houses Santa had to cover in 24 hours was enough to cast doubts before even getting into the notion of flying reindeers and chimneys that functioned as slides. But I held out hope that my parents didn’t lie to me.
On Christmas morning, I walked into the kitchen to see the cookies I had placed out for Santa back in the cookie dish. Note to parents who are impersonating Santa: eat the evidence. Further suspicion filled my mind, but I tried to push it out as we went to open the presents. I eyed the white package under the tree that appeared to be the same one my sister had discovered two nights before. Finally, my dad grabbed it from under the tree, read the label, and looked up at me expectantly, “To Rosie From Santa.” I nodded and reached out my hand, wordless. Tears stung my eyes, my nostrils flared. I opened that present, the one thing I had wanted for Christmas, with dread. It was like the Pandora’s box of my childhood. There was no going back.
That was the first in a series of Christmases where I cried. I am not a crier, but I am sensitive and small things packed with meaning– good or bad– tear me up and they inevitably did for a string of Christmases after I found out about Santa. The truth is I may have still been grieving what I learned the morning I was given that delicious smelling Strawberry Shortcake doll. Looking back now, I can’t help but also think about the Christmas blunders that still make me laugh. After my three crying Christmases comes the Christmas where I spilled the beans, possibly a passive aggressive reaction to my sister’s unveiling of Santa years before. She was opening a present from family friends that had been under our tree since the weekend after Thanksgiving. I knew what it was and she had asked me every day since it went under the tree to tell her. “No way,” I told her over and over, and mimed zipping my lips. But on Christmas morning, when that package was handed to her, something came over me. Just as she ripped the paper, the dike burst on my lips. “It’s a blowdryer!” I screamed with relief. She opened the box to see that, indeed, it was a ConAir.
When I was in college, I looked for a way to round out my meager gifts for my brother and sister. The solution? A mixed tape. I hobbled our musical interests onto 110 minutes of Memorex tape and always gave it a clever name that recalled our childhood. My favorite mixed tape from those years is still “It’s A Blowdryer” circa 1996.
If all goes well in the coming months, this will be our last Christmas without a child. I look back at the stories from the holidays of my childhood with such affection. The blue Huffy bike that gave me infinite freedom. The year that things were especially tight at our house so I awoke at midnight to fill the living room with handmade crafts to make up for whatever might not be under the tree. Truth be told, it has never been about what is under the tree (the Strawberry Shortcake incident was really about being lied to by the whole world and feeling duped), has it? It’s about what’s around the tree, who is around the tree. This year, BF and I have foregone gifts. Our gift will come soon enough.
As the holiday season sparkles in her splendor, as it calls to us to give thanks and love and peace, as it asks us to be our best, as it shares with us love and grace, I sit in wonder with a grateful heart. Happy holidays to each one of you. Whatever you celebrate, whether or not you celebrate, I wish for you a glorious end to this year that reminds you of your blessings and a beginning of the new year that teases you with its possibilities.