“Mommy, can we work on writing my letter to Santa now?” asked my 7-year-old daughter. Looking down at her face so full of excitement and hope, I felt myself break into a cold sweat. “What was she going to ask for?” I thought. “How on earth am I going to help her write a letter that will only get her hopes up in receiving something that she will probably never get?”
Attempting to steady my voice so that she didn’t detect the anxiety in my heart, I asked her what she was thinking of asking Santa for.
“I want a Puppy Surprise!” she squealed in unabashed delight. “It’s a stuffed dog that has puppies! Do you think I’ve been good enough this year for Santa to bring me one?” she asked.
My heart broke. Yes, she has definitely been good enough. Over the last few years she has been through more than most people have in their entire lifetime and although I may be biased, if there is anyone who deserves a Puppy Surprise right about now, it’s her.
The problem is, I’m not sure how to help her write that letter, because Santa isn’t in the business of crushing Christmas dreams, and I, being Santa, can’t make her dreams come true. In a society where parents wake up early on Christmas morning to see the joy on their kids’ faces when they unwrap the newest iPhone or video game, I’m just hoping that this Christmas my children don’t cry.
You see, my husband stole my ability to be Santa Claus when he abandoned our family and left me as a struggling single mother who relies on welfare just to keep everyone fed. With two children, ages 4 and 7, who ask for very little, I unfortunately, can give them even less. My ex-husband is nowhere to be found so I’m unable to collect child support and my kids and I rely on food stamps and medicaid (the $700 I earn each month with odd jobs and freelance writing isn’t enough). I’m working hard to find a steady job, but as I’m constantly reminded, without a college degree, it’s very difficult to find.
Eden Strong and her son. (Photo: Eden Strong)
My kids know that we aren’t wealthy. I’d like to think that I’m protecting them from the reality of our financial situation, but it’s not easy because kids are smart. They’ve begun to pick up on the way I squirm when I’m faced with extra fees from the daycare they attend (which is paid for under a state subsidy and charges extra for activities such as cooking, gymnastics, and karate). They watch as I run out of excuses when I turn down invitations to birthday parties because I can’t afford to buy another child a gift. They see the way I analyze the cost-per-unit labels at the grocery store, trying to stretch our food stamp budget as far as I can, and by now I’m pretty sure that as much as I’ve tried to hide it from them, at some point they’ve heard me crying over the bills at night.
But when Christmas rolls around I see the hope creep back into their souls; hope that they have long since buried over the course of the year. I hear them chattering about toys they want; requests that they’ve been patiently harboring since their birthdays quietly passed without mention of the gifts they knew I couldn’t afford to buy, when they instead opened toys that were clearly not new, and yet never complained about. I see — for the first time all year — that they are allowing themselves to dream. To them, Christmas isn’t about what mommy can’t afford or the unfair hand that they’ve been dealt, it’s about Santa, magic, and maybe for the only time all year, their chance to be an equal. Because the holidays don’t exclude poor children, right?
Except that sometimes, it does, because the holiday season has gotten so out of control that it’s hard for even an average income family to keep up. Americans start holiday shopping in October and by Christmas, we as a nation will have spent 465 billion dollars on Christmas.
Three Christmases have passed since my husband left and each one has been different in its own way. One year, the tree stood near empty on Christmas morning and the day was filled with not much more than tears, and another year left us filled with the joy of being loved on and gifted by another family. But this year, it’s looking like it’s going to be really bare under the tree. And yes, I get it, Christmas isn’t about toys and gifts, but it goes much deeper than that. Children on welfare are in many ways, robbed of much of what their peers get. They typically aren’t the kids who show up for the first day of school in a brand-new outfit or have seen the latest movie. Instead, they’re the kids who attend birthday parties and wonder why they never get to have one. They watch their friends go on vacation and ask why they never get to go. And as much as I have to assure myself that material goods do not make or break a childhood, after my kids hear a chronic stream of “no,” in response to everything they want, it does start to hurt, and eventually they want to know why: “Am I not good enough? Am I not worth as much? Are my friends more important than me? Why don’t I get to be like everyone else?”
(Photo: Eden Strong)
As a parent I am fully aware that while I can’t give my kids everything, I can help them grow into better people despite their circumstances, but this is Christmas we are talking about, and sometimes I would rather do without the lessons and simply watch my kids be happy.
And it’s hard, because I don’t know if Toys for Tots will magically hand me a Puppy Surprise to give my daughter, or if it will be a repeat of last year and we will be assigned a toy we already own. I don’t know if I can make our 3-foot tree seem magical on Christmas morning when the toys that the food pantry gave us are clearly a decade old or in shredded packaging. I don’t know how to not disappoint my kids when other parents — ones with more resources than I have — are working just as hard to not disappoint their children, and doing a hell of a better job than I am.
It’s not fair but sometimes life gives you less than you need, but it’s up to you to take what you have and turn it into something that you love.
So this year, I will play Santa, because he brings more than toys. He brings hope, magic, excitement, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself — all of which I’m confident doesn’t cost any money.
My kids don’t know exactly what welfare is, but they understand that sometimes we need help from other people, and while many might find that shameful, this Christmas I’m going to remind my children that they’re special, whether it’s by showering them with praise while we make a family breakfast and snuggling on the couch while watching a Christmas movie on TV.
And gifts? Sure there will be some. Maybe not the kind that takes 12 AA batteries and WiFi to operate, but hopefully a small toy from a local organization, some dollar-store nail polish (to turn my daughter into a princess with) and a homemade coupon for “a movie and pizza in bed.” It won’t be big or flashy, but at the end of the day there will have been something for them to carry in their hands, and more importantly, in their hearts.
So dear daughter of mine, yes, I will write that letter to Santa with you, but I won’t be helping you ask for a toy because Santa is getting a little tired of kids thinking that the magic of Christmas is delivered in a box. I’m going to help you ask Santa for everything that you really need; a reminder that you are worth more than what money can put under a tree. You may not be getting a Puppy Surprise, but you definitely won’t be feeling left out.
(Top Photo: Eden Strong)