The Christmas that changed all others.
My mother never shied away from change. She just charged ahead, moving to her own bugle call, waiting until the battle was over to consider the consequences.
Not even Christmas was safe.
Christmas at our house was a big deal, the biggest day of the year, a day filled with glitter and magic and warm kitchen smells. Aromas, both savory and sweet roamed through every room, beckoning us to the kitchen. Nanny and Pappaw would appear soon after Mama put away breakfast dishes and uncles, aunts and cousins would drift in throughout the day. By the time dinner was served, family decorated every piece of furniture.
But the Christmas magic always started on Christmas Eve.
Every year on Christmas Eve, we'd climb into our pajamas, put cookies and milk out for Santa, and scamper into our beds. Hunkering down under the blankets, we’d close our eyes, trying our best to fall asleep. But we were always too excited.
“Katy, are you asleep?” Pete would ask, too loudly. Our two bedrooms were side by side so a whisper wouldn't work, but Mama and Daddy were just down the hall, and we weren't supposed to be talking.
“Shush, Pete!” I’d answer, through clenched teeth. I was trying to hit that elusive spot between where Pete could hear me, but parents could not.
“Pete! Go to sleep!” Dee Dee would holler, thinking about Santa but not parents.
“I’m trying to sleep!” Katy would moan.
“Kids, if you don’t shut up and get to sleep, Santa is going to pass right over this house!” Daddy’s voice made concentrating on sleep easier. We didn’t want to make Daddy mad, and we didn’t want to be awake when Santa arrived. We respected the big man's rules; no one wanted him to skip our house.
Then we would wake up before the sun raised an eyebrow, begging Mama and Daddy to let us turn the knob that opened the magical door. That door, just a plain ‘ol wooden door leading from the hallway to our living room every other day, was the only thing separating us from the miracle that was Christmas morning. When we shoved it open, we would squeal with delight as a room filled with toys and surprises greeted us. Lights on the tree burned brighter against the darkness, dancing off silver icicles dangling on branch ends. The room didn’t just glow, it glittered. We didn’t realize the living room was so small it didn’t take much to fill. To us it was a gigantic toy paradise.
Our Christmas mornings belied the fact that Mama and Daddy both held down a job to make sure we had enough. Mama worked as a secretary during an era when most mothers didn’t, rarely taking a vacation. She got up by six o’clock every single morning, made breakfast before she woke us up and, during the week, packed school lunches before she had a chance to ready herself. After a long day at work, she would change into a house dress and head for the kitchen, where she would cook us a well-balanced meal. Daddy worked out of town most of the time. He was a telephone man and he made extra money that way. Our parents must have paid all year long for that one day.
I was twelve the year it changed.
My mother was no wilting rosebud. She was as kind as she was strong, the two characteristics coalescing into one force of nature. It was her dynamic kindness that forever transformed the way we celebrated Christmas.
The year was 1966 and Mama left work early to drop off a gift for her best friend. Marilyn owned a little beauty shop on the other side of town. Her shop and other businesses faced one way, and a row of shabby little houses faced the other, chain link fences separating them. It was Friday afternoon before Christmas Day on Sunday, and Mama was humming a Christmas tune as she parked. She loved everything about the Christmas season and her mood was cheerful and light. When she stepped out and headed toward Marilyn’s shop, she noticed a group of kids around our ages, playing in their back yard, on the other side of the fence.
“Hey, kids,” she hollered. “Y’all ready for Santa Clause?”
Her heart broke into five pieces when the oldest of the group walked over to the fence and, in hushed tones, told her they weren’t celebrating Christmas that year. “My madre is sick, Señora,” he said. “She is in the hospital and the bills are so high.”
Mama looked at the house, looked back at the children who reminded her of her own, glanced at the gift in her hand, and determined on the spot that hell would freeze over before she let those children, who were already suffering, go without Christmas too. She marched into the shop where Marilyn stood, deft fingers rolling a client’s hair. Three or four others lined the wall, one under the dryer’s plastic dome, flipping through magazines and chatting about nothing important. Draping an arm across her friend’s shoulders, Mama informed Marilyn she would not be receiving the gift that was her reason for dropping by.
“Marilyn, do you have any idea what’s going on with the family who lives behind this building?” she asked.
“I barely have time to know what’s going on with my own family right now, Thelma. This is the busiest season of my year.”
“There are five kids living right behind this shop who won’t have any Christmas this year,” Mama blurted, “because their mother is sick, and their father is struggling to pay hospital bills.” As she turned toward the rest of the room, Mama had everyone’s attention. She used her index finger to make her point, hoping Marilyn’s patrons would join her crusade.
“We are not letting those kids go without Christmas! They are already going through enough.”
After ordering Marilyn to hand out our telephone number – just in case her patrons would like to help – Mama headed back to her car, not even noticing if the children were still playing. She turned the key, revved the engine, tore out of the parking lot, and sped home.
Barreling through the front door, Mama went straight to the kitchen, got out the church directory and started dialing. We knew that look; we didn’t know what was behind it, but we saw Determination leading the charge.
“Kids,” she said between phone calls, “each of you needs to choose one gift from under the tree. Be sure your name is on it and put it on the table. You can keep that gift, but the others will go to some kids who won’t have Christmas unless we help.”
Then, looking at Katy, she added, “Oh – and by the way, Santa is taking your gifts to that other family instead of stopping here. There’s been some kind of mix-up and I found out, so I let him know they could have your gifts.”
Mama started dialing again. She didn’t look back, she knew better. She could sense our four stricken faces, eyes wide and mouths hanging open. She knew if she looked she would melt, and Determination would escape her grip.
We stood without moving, trying to untangle the words. It was as if she had spoken in a foreign language. No Santa? One gift? No Christmas?
“Sandra, this is Thelma Prescott . . .”
She didn’t even stop to tell us the story. We had to figure it out through conversations she had with other kids’ parents. Mama explained later but, at the time she was driven, trying to beat a clock that refused to slow down.
As we gathered around the dinner table that night, Mama made time to tell us about the five children who had so touched her. We listened, silently, as she told us how they reminded her of her own children. They were playing in their backyard as if they didn’t have a care in the world, just as she imagined we were playing in ours. We had counted down every day until Christmas and were elated, that morning, to see there was only one day left before Santa showed up. She figured they felt the same. When she explained about their sick mother, and that they weren’t going to have a Christmas, I felt a big hand around my chest, squeezing it tight.
My mother hadn’t kept her soft heart to herself. Like a handful of wildflower seeds tossed into the air, she had shared it with her children from the time we were small. Tears streamed down every single one of our faces. Years later, when I had children of my own and realized how much our parents gave up for those glittery Christmas mornings, the impact was even stronger. Today some would ask why she didn’t just go to the toy store and buy more presents. The simple answer is, there was no money left. The only way Mama could get them a Christmas was to give them ours.
By the time we climbed into bed, my mother had gathered food, gifts, and miscellaneous other items for the family no one knew existed a few hours before. She had rounded up a Christmas tree, complete with decorations, presents for each of the children she had met – and their parents – and a full Christmas meal complete with our Christmas turkey and several of our favorite pies. I don’t know how she managed the whole Santa deal.
We never did get to meet those kids who changed our Christmas celebration; she didn’t take us with her to deliver theirs.
Christmas morning that year lacked the sparkle, but none of the magic as we shoved open the door to a mostly empty living room. The lights on our Christmas tree glowed brighter than ever as we each opened our gift, all of us imagining five faces on the other side of town. I don’t remember the gift I chose, but I do remember how proud I was of my mother. I remember the warmth I felt as I considered the real meaning of Christmas. I thought of the shepherds, how they left their sheep, running off without thinking. Like my Mama, who had changed our Christmas without thinking. I considered how they must have felt, awe dispelling darkness as they crowded together to worship the newborn king. Our dynamic, kind and unselfish mother had made us every bit a part of that night as the shepherds.
Sitting on the couch with Daddy, watching her children open their meager gifts, tears filled Mama’s eyes then spilled onto her robe. Our mama didn’t cry, so we were startled to see her emotions in full view, rolling down her cheeks. We all stopped and moved toward her, tears reaching our eyes as well.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” I asked, gently placing my hand on her shoulder.
“Thelma?” Daddy asked as his arm wrapped around her.
Wiping her face, Mama tried to smile and tell us she was fine. But when she opened her mouth, the floodgate washed away again. It took her a bit, but she was finally able to choke out, “I’m so sorry for making you kids give up your Christmas.”
Those tears didn’t last long after we pounced, mangling her in a group hug.
From that Christmas forward, the Prescott family celebrated in a different way. Sure, we still had the fun, the food and the family, but the way we looked at the gifts was never the same.
We had already experienced the best gift we would ever receive.