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December 12, 2015

The Christmas My Mother Cried

Fostering Community

How childhood misadventure taught me the gift of receiving

As published in the December 2015 issue of Durham Parent

Growing up in our house, tradition dictated that my younger sister and I would awaken our parents on Christmas morning and go downstairs together to see the wondrous delights Santa Claus had left under the tree. It was a moment of childhood magic and one my mother loved to watch. For her, the weeks of shopping, the late-night wrapping with meticulous care culminated in one precious moment when her children’s faces would light up with joy.

One Christmas was different. Overly excited and unable to stay in bed, I ventured forth at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. with my still-sleepy sister in tow. I knew better than to disturb my parents so early, but waiting any longer was unbearable. So with the wisdom of a six-year-old (and the impulse control of a squirrel in a nut factory) I decided we would sneak downstairs to see what was under the tree. Surely, a single glance could do no harm. And then, I promised my sister (and myself), we would return to bed for a while longer.

Anyone who knows young children likely sees where this story is going. The sincere “Just one peak” easily became “Oh, look!” which led to “Let’s play with one toy.” Not surprisingly, that turned into “I wonder what’s inside all the presents under the tree?” Yes, my young brain demonstrated poor judgment, allowing my sister and I to gleefully open every single gift under the tree.

My mother found us that morning asleep on the sofa, likely exhausted from the adrenalin rush of rabid unwrapping. I can only imagine the disappointment she felt as she looked down at shreds of torn Christmas paper, ribbons and bows strewn about, and a random selection of presents no longer possessing gift tags. Perhaps her greatest disappointment was seeing the Easy-Bake Oven already unpacked with the little cake mix packages laid out on the floor. In our moment of impulsivity (and blatant disobedience), my sister and I had robbed our mother of the opportunity to watch us open the one gift we had wanted for so long.

It’s perhaps no surprise that this memory remains firmly engraved in my mind, but it isn’t the unwrapping of presents or playing with toys that I remember most. In fact, I barely recall the moment I saw the Easy-Bake Oven. What I remember most is my mother’s disappointment – the look on her face when my sister and I awakened on the couch, the combination of surprise, sadness and tearful eyes that let us know we had let her down.

My sister and I were banished to our bedroom for much of Christmas morning to contemplate the error of our ways. When we were finally allowed to come downstairs, the room had been tidied, my mother had regained her composure, and my father had done a valiant job trying to match gifts with recipients. (We’ll never know if the sweater he rewrapped for Aunt Jean was actually bought for Aunt Heather but who could be picky under such circumstances). My mother fortunately found humour in the situation and Christmas Day was saved. 

When my own daughter was older, I shared the story of this Christmas misadventure to explain the importance of giving but also the importance of receiving. My mother gave me that Easy-Bake Oven as a way of saying, “I know you. I love you. And I hope you will make wonderful memories with this gift.” By not receiving the gift with thoughtfulness and care, I failed to respect what the gift meant to her. In a sense, I missed out on the best part of the present.

As we enter the holiday season, let’s remind our children not only about the joy of giving but also about the importance of receiving. Let’s help them learn to receive gifts with mindful consideration of the giver, and to show thanks not only for the gift but also for what it represents.

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