The Christmas We Had Nothing to Give
By Cindy Bevington Olmstead
We didn’t have much to give for Christmas, 1976.
Back then, my then-husband was a full-time student with a part-time job. I had two jobs, but our three jobs together barely got us from one paycheck to the next and, were it not for our families feeding us on weekends, we wouldn’t have made it on what little money we had.
That year, my husband and I had agreed not to give each other gifts. Because our daughter was only four, we figured she wouldn’t notice that all the little presents we’d placed under the tree didn’t add up to $20, total. And, our families understood that the only presents we could give them was our presence at the traditional get-togethers.
I was depressed. I couldn’t get enthusiastic about decorating our $4 tree. It was hard to be cordial to my sisters-in-law when they called to plan the holiday meals, because I resented not being able to afford to cook or bake much.
The calls made me obsess over everything we lacked: a better car, a new house, money for a vacation. On top of that, I couldn’t stop thinking about the things I could give people, if only I had the money. One day, as I wallowed in self-pity by complaining to my co-workers during a coffee break, one of them, a woman who rarely joined in on any of our conversations, mentioned that she and her five children, ages two through 12, were not having Christmas at all.
None? At all? Surely she meant the kids were just getting a little less? I asked her. But no, she insisted they were getting nothing. I knew she was in the middle of a divorce. What I didn’t know until then, when I pressed her for the reason her children were going Christmas-less, was that she didn’t receive child support because her husband was in prison.
Unlike me, she had no family close by to help her. And no money to buy even a $4 tree, let alone presents. By working, she paid her own way most of the time, making meals stretch by skipping them herself so her children could eat more. But still, things were so tight that she often had to let bills go just to make it week to week. Usually in winter, that meant choosing between heat and rent.
Then, when the back rent piled up so much her landlord was threatening eviction, she would move her brood and their car full of belongings from house to house. The last couple of Christmases, rather than tell them the truth that she had no money for presents, she’d simply told her children they’d moved so much, Santa couldn’t find their house. This year would be the same, and she hoped the older ones wouldn’t tell the younger ones the truth, if it turned out this was the year they’d grown old enough to figure out the truth.
I was ashamed. Here was a wispy-thin woman who denied herself food so her children would have more to eat. She wore the same old dresses year after year, so the children could have second-hand shoes and coats. It hurt her to deny her kids Christmas presents, but first things came first. This year heating fuel for their house was way more important than a Christmas dinner or presents.
That night I made some phone calls to friends, fellow co-workers, my sorority sisters and even my own family. Our daughter, Heidi, didn’t recognize her dad in the Santa suit when we drove a panel truck full of food, clothes and gifts to the woman’s house on Christmas morning.
The woman stared wide-eyed as Santa and my sorority sisters’ husbands unloaded our truck and two other trucks, as well. It was the 12-year-old that brought us to tears, though, as he jumped up and down, shouting over and over, “Santa found our house this year! He found us! He found us!”
When we left, boxes of food lined the kitchen floor, the table and the hallway. Stacks of gifts filled the living room. The woman was sitting in a chair, crying softly and fingering a new dress.
The 12-year-old already had his new train set up, and its engine whistled as it clattered over the tracks. Later, as I sat down to dinner with our family, I wasn’t hungry, even though I hadn’t eaten all day. I was just so full of excitement I couldn’t eat. All I wanted was to share with everybody the tale of my wonderful day, to shout from the rooftops what a great Christmas I’d had.
Funny, it wasn’t until years later, after repeating this story for about the two-dozenth time, that I remembered that this was the Christmas we had nothing to give.