The year my parents couldn’t afford Christmas stands out in my mind. I couldn’t have been much older than 5 or 6. My sister was just a baby at the time. I didn’t know my family was barely scraping by, and I certainly had no idea that Christmas almost didn’t happen.
Like many other kids, I woke that morning giddy with anticipation. Before waking my parents, I rushed to the living room to sneak a peek at the Christmas bounty. I was surprised to see my old dolls beneath the tree. Santa must have snuck in my room to collect them while I was sleeping, I thought. But why? As I drew nearer to the tree, I realized each doll was wearing a fancy new dress, and beside them was a doll bed with beautiful handmade bedding.
I ran to my parent’s room, shaking my mom awake, “Santa came!” I yelled. “He made dresses for all of my dolls! Come see!” I pulled her from the bed, and led her down the hall towards the living room, where we opened presents together. I received a small plastic tea set, along with the doll dresses and bedding. I was in heaven! I hosted Christmas tea, before laying my dolls down for nap in their new bed, complete with a matching pillow and blanket.
It would be years before I knew the truth about that Christmas. I was a teenager the next time I mentioned it. My mother and I were reminiscing about past holidays one morning, “Remember the year you made all my dolls new dresses? That was my favorite Christmas.” I said. My mother stopped what she was doing and looked up at me in surprise.
“Really?” She said, sounding genuinely shocked.
I nodded, recounting the details of each dress, remembering the one with small purple flowers to be my favorite. I hadn’t known the truth about Santa at the time, but cherished the handmade gifts even more years later when I learned my mother was the seamstress behind every stitch.
Tears welled in my mother’s eyes as she explained our family’s financial struggles that holiday season. She’d found the doll bed months before Christmas at a second-hand store, the tea set was nothing more than cheap, dollar store plastic, and the dresses where sewn together with old fabric remnants, leftover from past projects.
“I cried most of Christmas eve, because I didn’t have any real gifts for you.” She said. “I stayed up all night sewing the dresses, and praying you wouldn’t be disappointed.”
I wasn’t. In my mind, that was the greatest Christmas I could have hoped for. I was elated to have a tea party with my baby dolls—each one dressed to the nines as we shared Christmas tea. I was even more touched years later, when I learned the dresses I cherished through much of my childhood were made with love, by my mother.
It’s not always about the gift you give. In fact, it’s rarely about the gift you give. Material things come and go, but I believe even as a small child I felt the love that came with my gifts that year. That Christmas has shaped the way I celebrate the holidays with my own children. We keep things simple and focused on family. My hope is that they always know how much they are loved, and never equate happiness with material things.
My mother would have given anything for my happiness. She would have gone hungry herself, and dressed in rags to provide for my sister and me—and sometimes she did. What she ultimately gave us was a deep appreciation for the things that really matter, none of which are material. She showed us unconditional love, and taught us right from wrong. If you find yourself in a similar situation this holiday season, remember what truly matters. The greatest gifts you can give don’t cost a thing.