The Lesson Christmas Taught Me

It was an epiphany.

Christmas was always a time of the year that me and my three brothers looked forward to. We counted down the days as it inched closer. When Halloween arrived, we knew Christmas was close. When Thanksgiving arrived we knew it was just a matter of weeks. We were just like any other child in America.

When Christmas Eve arrived, we could barely sleep. Every noise we heard was surely Santa landing on our roof. We always woke early and ran down the stairs heading straight for the tree, the stockings were always overlooked. This was always followed by an early dinner in which seconds turned into thirds which turned into desert.

But when I was 17 years old, all that changed.

I grew up in a family which some years we lived as a typical middle class family and some years we lived as a lower middle class family teetering on falling below the poverty line. But as I approached my 17th birthday, living as a typical middle class family became fewer and fewer.

When I turned 17, our family hit rock bottom.

Luckily, we had my father's military retirement to prop us up, although contrary to popular belief, an enlisted person's retirement isn't much. At this point we had to depend on food stamps, it was a decision my mother regretted. Our monthly trips to the food banks became weekly trips. Clipping coupons became a ritual. Second and third jobs became a way of life.

I was oblivious to all this at first. My parents kept money issues between the grown-ups. So, my countdown towards Christmas continued but the weeks prior to Christmas really affected me. I became privy to the grown-ups money problems.

The week before Christmas, my parents took me--and not my brothers, they still weren't privy to the facts--to the mega food bank in our town. My parents never took me to the food banks before, they always told me that they went to the IGA or the A&P when they went food shopping.

We gave the attendant our letter and we were given a voucher. With this voucher we were allotted three brown shopping bags of food. My father took these to our car as me and my mother walked into a warehouse. It was huge. It was massive.

This warehouse is where Santa dropped off toys for the poor children (so I was told): Used bicycles, dolls which were given new clothes and sometimes new limbs, games with missing or make shift pieces. There were also toys which were donated from congregations of different churches throughout our town and toys which were donated from department stores.

Christmas died for me that day.

No longer do I buy a Christmas tree. No longer do I hang a wreath on my door. No longer do I hang decorations in my apartment. My Christmas is a stripped down, bare bones Christmas. I go to midnight mass and eat. I use my Christmas day off (if I'm lucky to get the day off) to catch up on things I need to do: Laundry, reading, washing my car.

Every year I think about that horrible Christmas. The pain has faded but the memory still lingers. But what I have come to realize after all those years is this; Christmas isn't about gifts, it's about family. And for me, we had each other that year: My brothers and our parents (along with our pets).

So, I have come to realize that my Christmas didn't really die.

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