Christmas was my dad’s favorite time of the year, even when he had to swallow his pride to give us one.
It was December. It was cold. It was night. I don’t recall many other details of the setting, or even how I old was. What I do remember is that my dad and I were walking to church, not for mass, but for a holiday toy and food drive. The church—which wasn’t even our church—had been collecting donations from their parishioners and other community members for the less fortunate.
Until that night, I had never really considered us as part of the less fortunate. Had never actually considered us poor. Though that’s exactly what we were. I was young enough that I had only recently stopped believing in Santa Claus. But not old enough for the cold reality that—if not the generosity of others—we were about to have a Christmas without presents under the tree, or food on the table.
Looking back now, I think that night—that Christmas—was the start of it. The lean years. When my dad, my sister and I would go without things like phone service or hot water for months at a time.
I remember being embarrassed, and shy as we showed up on foot, our boots covered in frozen snow. And then excited at the idea that I got to pick out my very own presents. Only some of which were wrapped. I picked out the stuff I thought I would like best and I tried to do the same for my sister. But for any excitement I had felt, that night was difficult. We all had to swallow our pride. Most of all my dad. As tough as things would get for us—and they would get much, much tougher—he was never one for charity. But being disabled and the father to three young kids (though only my sister and I lived with him at the time) he had little to offer in return to anyone who extended a hand.
We didn’t have to rely on church toy drives much after that, finding other ways to make sacrifices so that we could do Christmas the way we wanted and give the things to each other we felt had more meaning—something we learned to appreciate the more we grew older.
Now years later, my father is gone and I’m a father myself. I have things that he never had: a professional career, a house that I own. But I also have some of the things he did possess: the understanding that there are times when pride has to be put aside—that if you need help, you should take it. And that if you’re in a position to offer help, you should do it.
My wife and I have been donating to toy drives and food banks since we got together. And now that our daughter is old enough, I take her shopping with me for the gifts that we’ll later drop off for churches, shelters, and community centers. We pick out tea sets for girls and action figures for boys. We pick out sticker books and Play-doh. And I think about the presents I picked out for myself that night. And the presents I thought my sister would have liked.
Photo courtesy of the author.