When I was asked to share a favorite holiday memory or tradition, I have to admit, I froze. Thinking of the holidays typically fills the minds of children and adults alike with images of large pretty boxes, bright metallic colors, twinkling lights, and feasts that could feed a small country. At least these are the images I grew up with, watching everyone around me and my favorite babysitter, the television.
My holidays as a child were much different than the peaceful, joy filled scenes that play out in every holiday special. Being raised in a home with a mother who didn’t believe in the holiday spirit and a father who barely made enough money to pay for the gas it cost for him to get to work, made the season the same as every other day… bleak. That is, until a very special Christmas I remember at the age of seven.
My family moved to California from Texas when I was five years old. We had been traveling from town to town for quite some time, so when we settled into the Cabana Lodge motel in Sacramento, I was happy to say the least. It was difficult sharing a small space with four other people and only having two double size beds, but it beat the old Chevy van I had been used to. With so many of us cramped in, there wasn’t much room for frivolous things such as toys, games or anything other than our clothes for that matter. But, there was a light at the end of my poverty tunnel.
Right next door to our new ‘home’ was the best place that ever happened to me, the Washington Youth Center. The Center (as we called it) offered an array of entertainment, education, safety and festivities. I’d never known a single place where in one room you could learn how to box like Sugar Ray Leonard, and in the next room, learn how to knit a blanket. With a basketball court, billiard room, and a huge craft room, there was always something to keep the kids of the neighborhood busy and out of trouble. Needless to say, I spent every waking moment I could at the Center, my home away from home.
And then, as if the small recreational mecca gods said ‘hey, we can do more for these kids’, the Center blew my little mind out of the water. Santa Claus decided to stop by during December of ’87. For years I had been told he was nothing more than a myth, a figment of the imagination parents told their children about to get them to behave. And why would my mother need a product of fiction to get her children to behave when she had her trusty broom? But there he was in the craft room, decked out in red velvet, black boots. He was fat and jolly just like the television said he would be.
Every child took their turn on his lap except me. Something about him terrified me. Maybe it was my subconscious loyalty to my mother, or maybe just seeing something that wasn’t supposed to be real was too much for my seven year old brain to comprehend. Whichever the case, I ran crying into the bathroom.
Barricading myself in a toilet stall didn’t stop Santa or his helpers from finding out what every child at the Center that day wanted for Christmas. Shortly after running into the bathroom, I was followed by the big guy and a female elf trying desperately to coax me out of my flushable sanctuary, to no avail. My mother was called to get me. I finally opened the stall door, to find a very angry mommy standing behind it.
As I slowly inched my way out of the stall, I was shocked at what happened next. Furious that the center would allow Santa in without a parent’s permission, my mother grabbed my arm and began dragging me out of the building, cursing up a storm at Santa and his staff as they tried to explain they only wanted to give the kids a gift they might not otherwise get. As we made it to the door, I was suddenly possessed by some creature that knew this was my one shot to test the validity of the St. Nick rumors. I knew what I was about to do would put me in the hot seat with my mom, but like I said, I was possessed. At the top of my lungs and with everything I had inside of me, I screamed “I want a pound puppy!” as the door closed.
I waited for weeks to see if the man who knew all had heard my cry. Christmas morning came, but when I looked under my pillow where I had placed my Christmas tree, a twig I had decorated with thread I had pulled from a sweater, there was nothing there. Of course, being the all-powerful, all supreme mommy she rubbed it in that he was only a man in a suit. Dejected, I left our motel room and went to the only place I felt like a kid. As I opened the door to the craft room, there he was with ten giant bags filled to the brim. As the white bearded saint saw me, he got up from his throne with a box covered in puppy wrapping paper and handed to me. Unlike the other children, I didn’t tear into it to see what I had gotten. Carefully peeling each piece of tape, as to not tear the paper, tears flooded my little eyes as I realized what hid underneath it. Not only had I got what I had asked for, but the big man one upped it by getting me the pound puppy with babies and a carrier.
I didn’t receive any other gifts from the jolly ol’ guy after that year . It seemed every time he would visit the Center, I had chores to do. I held on to those puppies for dear life for quite some time, but more importantly, I held on to the spirit and happiness that that Christmas brought. I don’t get big into the holidays much, but I am sure to pass on a little of the joy that was brought to me so long ago. After all, when you really boil it down, it’s not about the gifts, as much as it is about lighting up someone’s day that may not otherwise know its warmth.