44: The Year Santa Came

44: The Year Santa Came

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

The Year Santa Came

I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise of ordinary people living ordinary lives.

~Tracy Chapman

Christmas was never a particularly happy time for me as a child. In fact, I usually dreaded it — the lights, the preparations, my classmates’ excited babble and anticipation of presents — even the decorations depressed me.

Gifts were not exchanged in our home. My family was poor, and even the bare necessities were hard to come by for my parents, immigrants to Canada from Europe, who had four young mouths to feed. We understood that from an early age and didn’t resent it, but we did regret it, especially since there was never anything from Santa Claus himself to brighten our spirits. From time to time he would drop off a small gift for my brothers or me at a friend’s house, but more often than not there was nothing to open on Christmas morning.

Each time I awoke on that special day, I hoped it would be different, but it never was. My parents would remind me of the true meaning of Christmas as they handed me a lone tangerine and a meagre handful of mixed nuts, traditional holiday delicacies in our home. If I were less than enthusiastic, they would point out to me how expensive those items were. They went on to emphasize how lucky I was to live in Canada, where food was plentiful and accessible if one worked hard to earn money to buy it.

I would peel the tangerine half-heartedly while I waited for my turn to use our only nutcracker. As I broke off the segments carefully so as not to lose any juice, I listened to my father tell me about the poverty and hunger he endured in the “Old Country” after the war. When I asked why Santa never came, my mother would urge me to forgive him, explaining that he probably had trouble finding our tiny rented flat because it was nestled among so many bigger buildings. Then she would go off to prepare the small ham or turkey she had saved her pennies to buy. I would swallow my disappointment and play with some castoff toys my friends gave me the year before after making room for the replacements they found under their trees. Our own small pathetic fir, decorated with homemade items, sat in a corner of our kitchen, the stand and skinny lower trunk glaringly visible since there were no presents surrounding it.

The only highlight during the holidays was Christmas Eve. Our family had settled in a predominantly Polish neighbourhood. Every year our church would hold a party for the children of parishioners, complete with Santa Claus. We got to sit on his knee and ask for things that we wanted. Sometimes he would tell the odd child that he just happened to have that gift with him, sift around in a large red sack at his feet and pull out the desired treasure, but it had never happened to me.

The year I was seven, I mechanically went through the ritual, asking for a doll I had wanted for a long time and some plastic farm figurines and pretty hair clips that the other girls had. I chanted out the items like a mantra. Even at that young age, I knew I was wasting my breath. I stared down at my chewed, ragged nails and held back tears, trying to be grateful for the candy cane and tiny bag of chocolates every child was given regardless of what they asked for.

“How long have you wanted your doll, sweetheart?” Santa asked, breaking through my sadness. “Three years,” I mumbled.

“Were you a good girl?” he queried, placing his gloved hand under my chin, coaxing my eyes to meet his watery blue ones, so much like our pastor’s.

“I-I tried,” I responded. “But I get mad sometimes because my brothers tease me and the kids at school make fun of my clothes and boots,” I confessed, holding up a rubber boot that had seen better days.

“That doesn’t make you a bad girl,” Santa assured me softly. “Sometimes big brothers can be mean. So can other kids. Just try harder next year, okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed, preparing to slide off his knee.

“Wait,” he told me, clasping my elbow gently to restrain me. “Where are you going?”

“It’s someone else’s turn,” I answered, confused.

“But you didn’t get your gifts yet,” he chuckled, setting me down to dig through his bulging bag.

I held out my hand for the familiar sweets I’d almost forgotten, but instead he began to pull out several gaily-wrapped parcels. I looked past them, wondering why he was having so much trouble finding my candy, but he motioned for me to take the six packages he’d retrieved.

“For me?” I gasped, my eyes widening.

“Can you read your name?” he teased. “They all have your name on them.”

Sure enough, they did! My hands shook as I reached for one.

“Let my elves help you carry them to that table over there so you can open them,” Santa suggested.

“Oh, and here’s your candy. I almost forgot. I guess Santa is getting old,” he chuckled. “Merry Christmas, sweet child. Never stop believing in the magic of Christmas,” he added as I walked away clutching the biggest box. An elf flanked me on either side with the rest of the parcels.

I opened the packages slowly, savouring the beautiful moment. The first one contained the doll I’d wanted for so long. I kissed her pudgy cheeks, and smoothed her beautiful blonde hair. The second was a brand new winter coat. Boots followed, along with a shiny pair of patent leather shoes. Another box contained several skirts and blouses and the coveted barrettes. Finally, I opened the barnyard set that had almost a hundred farm animals, including the horses I loved so much!

Tears streamed down my face and I heard a voice behind me. I turned to see my teacher, beaming at me.

“I see Santa got your letter,” she grinned, and I remembered the wish list she had us write out in class earlier that month.

“Before I sent it,” she explained, “I added what a good little girl you were all year, helping me clean blackboards after school. I also told Santa how nice and patient you’ve been to the new girl, Gina, since her first day of school in a new country. Her English is getting so much better since you started speaking to her at recess.”

A shudder of emotion ripped through me as I swiped at the tears streaming down my cheeks. I was so overwhelmed, I was unable to speak.

“Don’t cry, dear,” she murmured softly, reaching out to wipe my face with a tissue from her pocket.

“You deserve all these pretty things.” She pulled me close in a tight hug and then left me to enjoy my treasures.

Finally, Santa had found me! The disappointment of the prior years faded as I pushed my arms and feet into my new coat and footwear, all of which fit perfectly. The memory of that Christmas followed me for years to come — and I never doubted the magic of Christmas again.

~Marya Morin

St. Lin des Laurentides, Quebec

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