Noe Valley Voice December-January 2011

Other Voices

A Christmas Story

By Rhiana Maidenberg

My eldest daughter, Elana, is almost four. She’s beginning to understand giving, and more importantly to her, receiving. To Elana, December is a magical month filled with Hanukkah, Christmas, parties, presents, and cakes. It’s a time when Daddy doesn’t go to work and we all visit the grandparents in Oregon. Since we live in San Francisco, it’s the one time of the year we see snow, even if just for only an hour or two.

I remember vividly the Christmas I was her age. My older brother and I lived with our mom in a small duplex on West Second Street, a few blocks from McMinnville’s small, and then depressed, downtown. Our parents had been unpleasantly and somewhat bitterly divorced for a few years and my mom, who had just finished earning her elementary teaching degree at a local college, was a first-year teacher in a very deprived Native American town, a few miles down Highway 99. Our savings account was empty, if not nonexistent, and my mom was struggling to get off welfare.

Even though I was only three and a half, I remember understanding that Santa wasn’t going to be able to come that Christmas. My brother and I knew that we had less money than some of our friends at preschool and we prepared ourselves to expect little under the tree come Christmas ­morning.

* * *

On Christmas Eve, my mom, Sam, and I gathered near the tree to sing Christmas songs, eat sugar cookies, and open one present each. The living room was sparse of furniture: a couch, chair, coffee table, and a lamp or two casting a dim light on the tender family moment. However, I also remember a large, impressive tree, standing higher than the tallest member of our family, my five-foot-two mother. The tree was decorated with lights, tinsel, ornaments, and candy canes, and was as close to perfection as a toddler could imagine.

That night, I opened a present from my Aunt Chris. Although I can’t picture the exact toy, I recall a distinct aroma of strawberry shortcake lingering on my pudgy fingers long after I went to bed. My brother and I went to sleep excited to play with our new toys and even more eager to unwrap the few remaining presents that still lay unopened beneath the tree.

I lay in my bed listening for sounds of Santa but knowing that he was a very busy man and might not make it to our house. Still, I listened for footsteps on the roof and a jolly old man crashing through our chimney (although we didn’t have one). I imagined his sled skidding to a stop on our rain-covered roof and the reindeer waiting patiently for Santa to complete his duties.

The next morning, Sam and I awoke at dawn to find the cookies we’d left for Santa—and the carrots we’d left for his reindeer—appropriately missing. However, under the tree lay a large bag, bigger than anything I could have imagined, filled with toys. The toys weren’t wrapped, and they weren’t fancy. I remember dolls and cars, trains and blocks—the kind of toys one imagines Santa’s elves creating at the North Pole.

Santa came, and he left his whole sack! Sam and I looked to our mom in disbelief. “Mom,” we whispered, “Santa forgot his sack. Now the other kids won’t have any toys!” After she spent a few moments reassuring us, Sam and I dug into the bag with the energy only a child can have at six a.m. on Christmas Day. Nearly thirty years later, my mom still won’t tell me how the toys in the sack found their way under our tree. But maybe I don’t really want to know, either. The mystery let’s me believe, if not in Santa, in the kindness of family, friends, and possibly even strangers.

* * *

My kids may never experience that kind of holiday. They are growing up in a world without want. They have both parents in one house, and a mom who spends most of her waking hours taking care of their every need.

I married into a Jewish family, so in our home we celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday that brings not one, not two, but eight days of presents! Although a bunch of those gifts are more the practical type (socks and pajamas), it’s still a lot of getting! To lessen the load, my husband Ted and I decided to make the sixth night of Hanukkah a night for charity, where the kids give the money we would have spent on a present to someone in need.

Elana is beginning to understand. “So, instead of a toy, I’m giving money to someone without a lot of princesses?” She thinks it’s nice, in theory, and likes the smiles and gratitude she receives when she donates. On the other hand, she also enthusiastically awaits the seventh night. “Tonight we get a present, right?”

Last December, after eight nights of Hanukkah, Elana and Maisy felt pretty confident that they would get to open a present every day for the rest of their lives. Each morning when I’d drop Elana at preschool, she’d ask hopefully, “Do I get a present today?” 

I was feeling a bit dismayed, especially since Christmas with my family was rapidly approaching and more gifts were coming. However, one day about a week later, I saw Elana counting the change in her piggy bank. When I asked her what she was saving her money for, she replied, “When it gets really full, I’m going to give it to the poor people who don’t have food, or clothes, or toys, or a house, or fancy dresses.”

I was about to cry.

That is, until she whacked Maisy for trying to swipe a nickel and I had to send her to her room for a timeout.



Rhiana Maidenberg is a freelance ­parenting writer, escaping her two young daughters by writing in her favorite Noe Valley coffee shop, Bernie’s. In her blog, Married with Toddlers, Rhiana explores the challenges of raising kids and husbands in the current super-mommy, super-wife, super-everything environment. She is now a regular contributor to the Huffington Post Parents section.


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