Ah, shopping for the kids! That is a relatively new and wonderfully pleasant experience. When they were growing up, we never had money for shopping for them. Medical expenses for Doah and Noelle always robbed us of that particular pleasure, and visiting them in the hospital -- Noelle was there Christmas day for a number of years in a row -- meant little time for shopping of any kind had we had any money to engage in that popular activity.
Nonetheless, we have many pleasant memories from Christmases past. For example, one year we had moved into a new place with a fireplace. Donnie had built a warm fire on a cold Virginia night, and we sat together, enjoying the evening while the kids were sleeping. Five-year-old Doah, however, woke up and crept downstairs. Seeing the fire, he began crying loudly.
"What's the matter, Doah?" we asked.
"Ho-ho burn butt!" he sobbed.
For the sake of Santa Claus's posterior, we put out the fire. Doah went off to bed quite happily, satisfied that he had finished his task of ensuring a safe entrance for the deliverer of gifts.
Then there was the year that we had no money at all. Christmas celebrations of the traditional variety were seriously out of the question, especially since we were moving at the end of December. The day after Christmas, as we were taking our first load of household goods to our new residence, we happened to drive past a Christmas tree lot and noticed that the lot had been abandoned. In the back of the lot was a lone, sickly-looking, leftover Christmas tree. Lizzie and Shane jumped out of the car and delightedly dragged it over to Donnie, who lashed it to the roof. Off we went, pleased with our acquisition, although we got strange stares from passing cars. We later decorated our puny little tree with our traditional ornaments, turning it into a festively proud fir. Homemade gifts in the form of food items were the theme of that year. We decorated the tree with cookies, fudge, and other favorite items of the kids that they removed and ate New Year's morning, the day we had decided would be "Christmas" that year.
Other examples of special Christmas events abound. I will share some of them:
(1) Our introduction to Christmas with kids came when Lizzie, our oldest and at barely two years old too young to know anything about Christmas yet -- or so we assumed -- stood in her pajamas at the window as dark settled around our apartment on Christmas eve and suddenly announced, "Santa Claus is coming tonight!" Oh, no! There were no plans for Santa to come that night! Donnie dashed to the car. It was nearly 9:00. The only store still open was a Five-and-Dime, and all Donnie could find in it were little socks for Lizzie's doll. It was enough to make her happy, and from that day we began the practice of one present per child for Christmas.
(2) We tried to make the one gift something very special, but we could never predict our children's strange requests. For example, Lizzie at the age of eight, a precocious fourth grader (she had skipped second grade), asked for a college textbook on genetics. Her interest came from attending the university Russian courses I taught on those days when she had no school and spending the hour in my intermediate Russian course solving problems passed along to her by one of my students who was majoring in genetics. (He also proudly dragged her to the honors program director, who invited her to attend some lecture-form university courses, where she promptly fell asleep. Nonetheless, the director offered to "enroll" her in the honors program as an aspiring college student, but doing so became too complicated. She had to wait another four years before taking her first college course for credit.) When Lizzie, who did become a genetics major for about three years before changing her major to cognitive neuroscience, received her Santa-delivered genetics textbook, she ecstatically raced from house to house in our small neighborhood to display her treasure, then returned home, plopped down beside me on the sofa, and mourned, "None of my friends like my gift! They think it's dumb."
"Well," I asked her, "What do you think? Are you happy with the book?"
"Yes. It's exactly what I wanted, and I really like all the problems at the end of the chapters."
"What did your friends get?"
"They got dolls. That's dumb!" I don't remember Lizzie ever playing with dolls other than the one that needed socks when she was little, a soft pink lamb that my grandmother gave her as a toddler and that she has to this day, and a monkey that my grandmother made for her out of a sock that she eventually wore out.
(3) One year, no one had been in the hospital all year, and we had money for Christmas! It was enough to buy bikes for Shane and Lizzie, pre-teen and teen at the time. Donnie and I were as excited as children to be able to get those bikes for our kids. (Noelle, who is paraplegic, and Doah, who is mentally retarded, never were able to ride a bike, but they got gifts that they had asked for.) That year, Shane and Lizzie had made no particular gift request, and we played a very cruel trick on them. We hung only the bike-lock keys on the tree and hid the bikes behind the house. The keys blended into the ornaments, and after the other gifts had been given out, Shane and Lizzie had nothing. In true Shane and Lizzie fashion, they looked around the tree one more time and said nothing.
"Did all the gifts get passed out?" I asked innocently.
"It seems so," said Lizzie. "Shane and I don't have anything, but that's okay. We don't really need anything. We didn't ask for anything this year."
"Really?" I asked. "Are you sure there is nothing else?" Donnie pulled one of the keys off the tree and handed it to them.
"Oh, oh, oh!" Shane exclaimed, "We have a bike!" Clearly, he assumed that Lizzie and he would be sharing.
"Go look out behind the house," Donnie suggested, and they took off running. We regretted not taking a camera with us when we saw the look on their faces when they caught sight of TWO bikes! They were extraordinarily understanding kids. They knew what it had taken for us to gather the money for two bikes, and they were grateful to us every time they rode them. That was a special Christmas. Donnie got a bike the following Christmas, and for years the three of them would ride together on Saturdays while I spent the day with Noelle and Doah.
The most special Christmas, though, was not one when we had money for gifts but one when we did not. It came two years after the bike Christmas. That year, multiple surgeries drained our coffers dry. Fortunately, we had an artificial Christmas tree with which a relative had gifted us a few years earlier, so we put up the tree and decorated it. Christmas eve ultimately came, and we knew we had nothing for the children. Donnie and I contemplated another year of cookies and fudge, but before Donnie got down to cooking (something he had to do alone -- I am such a bad cook, I would have wasted the ingredients in preparing inedible foodstuffs), one of us -- I don't remember which -- had a scathingly brilliant idea, to quote Hayley Mills' character in The Trouble with Angels. Donnie had by then begun working as a computer graphist, and we conceived of making coupons for each of the kids for one-on-one activities with Mom or Dad: a snack at McDonald's, a special lesson in one of our specialties, private walks, an activity that the child would choose, and so on. Each child received a book of twelve coupons that could be redeemed at will during the year. They loved them, and they used every one of those coupons! That year remains our favorite. In spite of our annually increasingly brighter financial status, no year matched that one for that year Christmas lasted not one day but twelve months.
The end: As I was writing this post, nostalgia made me turn to Donnie and start reminiscing about that very special Christmas. We want to repeat it. So, we have just decided to give our children and grandkids coupons for future joint activities this year. As for the money we had set aside for gifts, we are now excitedly planning how to get rid of it and have scads of ideas about where to distribute it. I will add a PS later, once we have decided where it will go.
Oh, this year is going to be such a great Christmas!