This is a Christmas story. I’ve told it before, but Christmas stories beg to be retold time and again, lest their truth be lost to anyone, especially the teller.
Besides, Christmas stories are woven with a thread of magic that makes each new telling a bit different from the past, both in how it’s told and how it’s heard. This is my story. But I hope that, in some way, it will be yours, too.
The Christmas I was 10 years old, my brothers and I didn’t get presents from Santa, and my stepfather didn’t drink. It was a sober season for us all.
It started at a textile mill picnic on a firecracker hot Fourth of July. When the mill hands faced off for a tug of war (weavers on the right, fixers on the left, with a rope stretched between them) everybody gathered to watch.
My stepfather, the strongest man I ever knew, took the lead for the weavers, wrapping his big callused hands around that rope, refusing to give an inch.
He and his buddies should have won. Everybody said so. But just when it seemed the fixers were finished, his foot buckled beneath him and, one by one, the weavers fell.
When they got up to shake hands, my stepfather stayed down. And for the next six months, while his ankle slowly healed, he was out of work.
If you live week to week, paycheck to paycheck, it doesn’t take much to make hard times harder. That December, my mother said Santa would be late.
“How late?” I asked.
“Maybe spring,” she said.
Just before Christmas, some good people from church brought us a tree decorated with colored lights and paper birds, along with a big canned ham and a tin of sugar cookies.
My mother thanked them kindly, but forgot to offer them coffee. My stepfather hid in the bedroom. My brother, Joe, who was 6 years old and blind all his life, said the tree was by far the finest that he had ever seen.
After the church folks left, my mother baked biscuits, sliced the ham and served it with a jar of applesauce that she had preserved in better times. My stepfather claimed that he wasn’t hungry. But we ate it all. It was good.
“Life is a bank,” my mother told us. “Sometimes you give; other times you take. Either way, it’s all the same bank.”
Then she added this.
“It’s hard having to take,” she said, staring at her raw, overworked hands. “But you don’t need to be ashamed of it.”
She locked her eyes on mine.
“Just remember how it feels,” she said. “Because one day, you will do the giving.”
On Christmas Eve, my stepfather came limping home with a crate of tangerines under his arm.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, dropping the crate by the tree. We ate the tangerines for dessert after a supper of fried ham and grits. Joe said they were the finest tangerines that he had ever seen.
Then we sat by the stove, warm and content, telling Christmas stories old and new.
Every year at Christmas, and some days in between, I’ll eat a tangerine and smile, recalling my mother’s words.
Giving is easy. It makes us feel good. Taking is hard. It makes us feel helpless. But we all need a little help sometimes, a little kindness, a little compliment or maybe a big canned ham.
Either way, giving or taking, it’s all the same bank.
My Christmas story is not about a lack of gifts. It’s about an abundance of the heart. I wish that same wealth for you.
May all your hopes and dreams come true, and may your fears never come to pass.
May you know the joys of both giving and receiving.
May you give with grace and receive with gratitude, knowing that, either way, you are blessed.
May all your Christmases – especially this one – be happy, healthy, merry and bright, and may all your Christmas stories be retold.