Will Christmas really be all right? I wondered as I knocked on the battered door.
A disheveled young woman answered my knock. "Thank the Lord you came back. I was afraid you wouldn't." Over her shoulder she called, "I told you kids Santa wouldn't forget ya."
As my son, David, and I stepped into the dismal clutter, seven shabby children lined up in front of a ragged couch. Hands clasped, rigid as if they faced a firing squad, they watched the floor.
My heart ached for them, especially when the dark-eyed nine-year-old whispered, "Ma, there ain't such a thing as Santa Claus." He was too young to have grown beyond pretending.
We'd met him when we came to investigate the family's urgent needs; a day that had been a turning point in David's life. Now I prayed that tonight might be a turning point for the boy.
"Chris," I said gently. "Santa lives in the spirit of giving, a symbol of the gifts the Magi brought when Christ was born. If he doesn't exist, where did we get a bike with your name on it?"
Chris ducked his head to hide the smile he couldn't control. I knew he wanted to believe.
"My son will be bringing in your gifts, children," I said. "Maybe you'd like to help him?"
Ramrod stiff, eyes wary, they stood their ground.
David's smile was wonderful as he tried to put them at ease. "Nah," he said. "You guys stay in where it's warm. I'll get the stuff."
A month ago it had taken threats to get David inside this rundown house in the slums. Now he hurried to the car to bring Christmas to the children. His rich new baritone glorified the snowy night as he sang, "Joy to the World." This was the same boy who had hated me for most of the past year.
"It's Your Fault"
As we waited for David to bring in the gifts, that year crowded into my mind.
Last Christmas had been a nightmare for him. His father had stormed into the house, full of liquor, to inform me that he had a new love. The slamming door as Jerry left us brought David downstairs to his first awareness that his parents' marriage had failed. Wild-eyed and confused, he screeched, "What was all that about?"
I didn't know how to tell him. So I simply said, "Your dad has left us, David."
"What do you mean?"
"He's asked for a divorce," I told him. "He's not coming back. I'm sorry, Honey. But you and I will be just fine. I have a good job; I can take care of us."
"Dad wouldn't walk out on me this way," he said. "Who cares about your dumb job? What about Dad?"
"There's someone else in his life now, Son."
His life shattered, his usually twinkling blue eyes flooded with hate, David growled, "Whatever's wrong is your fault."
Some Brave Words
My punishment began that night. David hated Christmas, his gifts, the world, and everything I said or did. As winter passed, his grades nose-dived. His father never called. And David couldn't stop blaming me for everything that was wrong with his life. Spring and summer passed as we sparred, and David withdrew into himself.
Things hadn't improved when we went to Mother's for Thanksgiving dinner the following year. David gave his grandma an off-handed hug and escaped into TV.
His behavior worried Mother too. He was the subject of our conversation. As usual, I was trying to find a way to reach my son.
"I've decided that David and I will adopt a family to help at Christmas. He'll get involved in life again when he sees how fortunate he is."
Mother's laugh was derisive. "Good luck, Toni. That young hoodlum ought to freak out over such a deal."
"He's not bad, Mother. He's been hurt. Give him a break."
"He's probably 'on' something," she said. "All the kids are nowadays. Wise up, Toni, he's not going to help you play Santa Claus."
"He will help, Mother. We'll get a family and he'll help." Those were brave words for me. I had no idea how I could make it happen. With no one to turn to, how could I find a way?
On the way home the car radio blared Christmas carols. David punched the buttons the moment he entered the car. Any kind of music would do, as long as it made conversation impossible.
Reverent voices singing, "Silent Night," sent an overwhelming sadness through me. I thought of the happy Christmases I'd known when Dad was alive. Through the years since his death, Mother had forsaken the refuge of Christ's love, and I'd followed her along that hopeless path. How long had it been since I prayed? When did I become foolish enough to think I could live without his comforting presence? No wonder our lives had gone awry.
On my knees that night I begged God's forgiveness and let him lead my life. There would be no earth-shattering miracles, I knew, but with the Lord's help I'd bring David back.
I started my campaign the next morning with a call to the pastor of the church I'd once attended. He knew a mother who was desperately trying to manage a large fatherless family. She'd asked for assistance. He gave me her name and address.
I braved the battle with David that evening. "Today I found a family who needs us, David. You and I are going to play Santa Claus for them."
"Play Santa Claus if you want to, but count me out," he sneered, slamming into his room.
Undaunted, I opened the forbidden portal, and said, "David, if you want driving privileges, you help. It's that simple."
When I stopped in front of the house the day we went for the first interview, David sulked. "I'm not going in that crummy place."
"Yes, you are, David. The family we're going to help lives here." I didn't want to go in either, but that was only because I was worried how David would behave.
The mother ushered us inside while the children lined up in front of the couch like worn marionettes. They stared at us, a mixture of distrust and curiosity in their eyes.
I prompted David. "Ask them."
He gave me a black look, squirmed in his parka, and addressed the group in that deep voice that still startled me when he spoke. "What do you kids want for Christmas?"
When none of them answered, he gently nudged the five year old, whose big brown eyes sank my heart. "What's your name?" David asked the boy.
"Okay, Jeremy, tell me what you want for Christmas."
The child whispered, "A Christmas tree."
"Sure you'll have a tree, but what else do you want?"
When the boy turned those soulful eyes onto David's and replied, "I don't need nothin' else," I saw a transformation come over my son. His eyes grew misty as he reached out to caress Jeremy's face. Perhaps for the first time in his life David realized how much he had.
God Bless You for Needing Us
The next day David asked, "Can I have 20 bucks?"
"Why do you need that much?" I asked.
"Some stuff," he said, staring unblinking into my eyes. I knew he didn't intend to explain further.
That worried me. Was he "on" something, as Mother had suggested? I hid my fears and handed him the 20.
Four hours later I was in a panic. Although David had been surly and disrespectful during the past year, he was always on time for meals. Dinner had been cold for two hours. I was dialing the police when the back door burst open. David barged into the kitchen, and yelled, "Mom! Look what I got!"
Onto the table went the contents of two large sacks as toys and games spilled out. "These are for the boys," David said. "I didn't dare shop for the girls, but there's some neat stuff at Oliver's. Most of the things I wanted to get were too expensive, and tree ornaments are outta sight. But I shopped around. I think I got some bargains."
His eyes sparkled and his cheeks were flushed. "Christmas is gonna be neat this year," he said as he grinned over his booty. "I'm going to shovel snow around the neighborhood so I can do a little more shopping on my own, but I want you to help me pick out the best tree we can find."
David's hearty baritone brought me back to the house in the slums. As I stepped through the door to help him with the gifts, I whispered, "Aren't we fortunate? We have so much."
"But tomorrow will be brighter for our family. Remember that, Mom."
Did he mean us, or our Christmas family?
The cheerful Santa's helper filled the doorway, his arms loaded with packages, a broad smile on his face. He'd found a red Santa hat somewhere!
"Ho, Ho, Ho!" he called out. "Come see what Santa sent for you." A score of bright Christmas packages cascaded to the couch. "Your names are on them, but you can't open them yet." Then David touched Jeremy under the chin and said, "A tree comes next, just for you."
David brought in the large tree and we all started to decorate. We had so much fun decorating that Jeremy jumped up and down, squealing, "It's the most beautiful present I ever saw! I got what I wanted from Santa Claus!"
David hauled in presents until the small house was awash in Christmas. There were many gifts of clothing for the children and their mother. And there were toys! As each appeared the children became noisy with delight and lost their shyness. Nine-year-old Chris saw nothing but the bike.
"Ma" inventoried the boxes of food. "This is so wonderful!" she said. "We'll eat good till spring. Turkey, apple pie, everything. We ain't had nothin' like this in our lives. There really must be a Santa Claus." Her eyes brimming with tears, she hugged both of us. "May the Lord love you for bringin' hope into our home. I never thought he'd answer my prayers."
And may the Lord bless you for needing us, I thought. Through his grace he gave me back my son.
The Real Meaning of Christmas
"It was over too soon, Mom," David said as we drove away.
"I know. I feel that way too. I'm sure the Lord will see that they're taken care of. But wasn't it wonderful that we could help this year?"
"Let's go to the candle light service and thank God, Mom," David said, brushing a kiss across my cheek. "This has been the coolest thing I ever did. I've never thought much about Jesus being born, about how the gift of his life and his teachings could give us so much happiness. I guess I never knew the real meaning of Christmas until we got a family of our own."
Toni Whittier is a writer who lives in Utah.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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