Recently, I was visited by The Ghost of Christmas Past just as surely as was Ebenezer Scrooge in the well-known Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol.
While preparing for the most important holiday of the year, I began thinking of former celebrations – all the way back to my childhood. As a little girl, Christmas couldn’t have been more wonderful. An only child, I was doted on by my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I received more Christmas presents than any child deserves.
But I was thankful.
My mother taught me at a young age to appreciate what others did for me; I always showed delight with the gifts I received so that the givers knew they were appreciated. And so I wouldn't get into trouble with my mother! But one Christmas, when I was eleven years old, there was a surprise I hadn’t counted on, and wasn’t sure I wanted.
My parents decided to bring home a little boy from an orphanage to spend Christmas with us. They didn’t ask for my input, which I resented, and I was uncertain how I felt about it. All of my relatives will want to make it a wonderful Christmas for this little orphan boy. What if he gets more presents than I do? Will I be able to be thankful and appreciative, or will I be envious of his loot? I’ve never had to share before.
I didn’t say anything, but I was secretly concerned that this unusual venture might turn out badly for everyone. Especially me.
Tommy was eight years old. He had pale skin, blonde hair, and was so skinny he looked like a stick with ears. At first glance, I felt a little sorry for him. The few clothes he brought were in a large paper bag. My mother put them in drawers in the room where he’d be sleeping.
We hit it off pretty well. I taught him how to play one of my board games and we played until dinner was ready. He seemed alright. This might work out after all, I thought.
Two days before Christmas, my mother took Tommy and me shopping to get a gift for my dad. We watched as she chose a nice wallet and had it gift wrapped and topped off with a big red bow. Then she took us to a soda shoppe for ice cream. It was a fun afternoon. On the way home, my mother cautioned us both, “Now, you must not say anything to your dad about what we bought him. It’s a surprise!”
“Okay,” we said simultaneously.
The next day was Christmas Eve – the day all my relatives came by to say Merry Christmas and deliver presents. My mother had all kinds of cookies, candy and other goodies made up for the occasion. Much fun was in store.
As relatives started arriving, Tommy became more and more excited. Everyone smiled and spoke to him and, as presents were placed under the tree, he noticed that some of them had his name on them. He could hardly contain his excitement!
After everyone was gone, Mother gave us some eggnog and cookies and told us it was bedtime. “Santa won’t come until you’re asleep,” she said.
I went right to sleep, weary from so much activity and excitement.
Someone said my name. When I opened my eyes, Tommy was standing beside my bed smiling. “It’s Christmas!” He said.
“Tommy, it’s not even light outside. What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Let’s go see if Santa came.”
I can honestly say this was the first Christmas ever that my presents weren’t as important to me as watching someone else enjoy his. Tommy ran from one thing to another, not stopping long at one place before moving on to something else. He had cars, trucks, board games, GI Joe army men with a tank and an airplane, and other toys, but what he needed most was clothes. And he got them. There was a nice winter jacket, pants, shirts, socks, shoes, pajamas and underwear. He made quite a haul! He even got a little suitcase to put his clothes in when he goes somewhere.
When my parents finally sat down to open their gifts, Tommy and I settled down nearby to watch, clapping our hands excitedly each time a gift was opened. When my dad picked up the familiar looking gift with the big red bow and began to tear the paper, Tommy couldn’t stand it any longer. With a glowing smile on his face, he blurted, “Somebody’s gonna get a billfold!”
My mother waved her hands in the air and shot a nasty look his way, but the damage was done. My father, who loved a good faux pas, laughed heartily.
Christmas Day was wonderful! My mother cooked a big turkey dinner with all the trimmings and Tommy and I played games and enjoyed our gifts all day long. My friend, Carol came by to see what I got for Christmas and told me about her gifts.
That night, when Mother was tucking Tommy and me into bed, he surprised her by saying, “Goodnight, Mom.”
The next morning, I asked my mother if we could keep Tommy – adopt him as a member of our family – my little brother? After a little hesitation, she said, “I’m sorry, honey. It just wouldn’t work out. It was a nice Christmas for Tommy and we enjoyed it, too, but we have to take him back now. I knew better than to argue with my mother, so I nodded and wiped away the tears that were brimming in my eyes.
Mother packed Tommy’s new clothes into his new suitcase and boxed up his new Christmas toys. And after a leisurely breakfast, we drove him back to the orphanage. The whole fifteen mile trip was silent – Tommy, looking out the window on one side of the car and I, on the other.
Inside the orphanage, we took turns hugging Tommy and telling him goodbye, then he ran off to show some of the other boys what he had gotten for Christmas. He didn’t even look back as we were leaving.
I cried all the way home.
We never saw Tommy again. Nor did we ever hear from him.
Sometimes I think about him and wonder where he is and what kind of life he had. I like to think that he was adopted by parents who needed a little boy to love. Someone who gave him a good home, an education and everything he needed for a good life.
I think my parents thought they were teaching me a valuable lesson - showing me how fortunate I was to be loved by so many and have so much given to me.
Letting me see the way some not-so-fortunate children live.
I suppose it was a worthwhile lesson, but, after many years, it still makes me sad to remember Tommy and the way he looked on that long-ago Christmas morning when he stood beside my bed while it was still dark outside, and said, “It’s Christmas!”