Winter was upon them and the chill leaked through the walls and windows. The young girl shivered, wrapping herself in the blankets that her mother had laid across her shoulders. The candlelight flickered across the table. She picked up the paintbrush, yellow on its tip. As carefully as she could, she painted the stuffed solider doll.
Every night that week, she had decorated another ornament for the tree that sat in the corner. Every night, it was only a candle that provided the light to see by. Every night, she beamed with pride with another creation hung.
Her mother leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Time for bed, Judy."
Christmas was only hours away. Soon Santa would be coming, and the child had been on her best behaviour, not wanting coal in her stocking. She put the final touches on her soldier doll and dunked the brush in the cup of water. She started to clean up, but her mother stopped her.
"I've got it. You just get dressed for bed and go brush your teeth."
Smiling, the girl dropped the blankets and ran down the hall to her room.
The following morning, Santa held good on his promises. The lounge floor was covered in small square swatches of carpet, each with a scene of its own made from Barbie furniture: couches and chairs, made from styrofoam covered in brown fabric; a bed with tiny sheets and blankets; a dining room table with cutlery and plates; a fridge and the kitchen sink.
What the little girl didn't know was that her parents had spent weeks on end crafting every piece of furniture or accessory that they could, spending money only on the bare basics. Every night after she went to bed, they had out the craft knife, the sewing machine and the other tools needed to fashion the toys. To them, it didn't matter that they had no money to spend — the power had been turned off, the bank had foreclosed on the house, and they were squatting illegally in the house that they had once owned. To them, their six-year-old daughter's happiness was what mattered. She was still a child and didn't need to be subjected to the realities of life at such a young age.
Santa was coming to deliver her some presents, even if it meant her parents got no sleep to make it happen.
Many times, while growing up, my parents fell on hard times. It would seem that the great cosmic life force out there had it in for them. More than once, my father has been made redundant. But that first time, when I was a little girl, I was entirely clueless. My mother still sung all the Christmas carols as she did what she could to put food on the table and clothes on my back. I was still in one of the top private schools in the region and the only thing I had to worry about was whether Santa thought I had been good enough throughout the year. While children often see Christmas as a time for presents, and rightly so, to my parents, Christmas has always been about finding joy in life — even if it was just the smile from a little girl with those wide eyes as she stared out at all the Barbie furniture.
In truth, I hate this time of year, but not because I felt neglected or anything like that. On the contrary, I was blessed. No, I hate this time of year because of all the stress that bleeds through the air as people forget how to be nice to one another. The once-a-year drivers seem to find the roads all at the same time, forcing me to narrowly miss them as I go about my daily routine. And so many profess to be Christian, but forget what it means to be human. This time of year, I deliberately shut myself away as much as possible from the world, doing my grocery shopping at night, only going to the places that I need to because of my prior commitments.
When the tree comes out, there is one ornament that is always on the tree, sitting in a place of pride and joy: the stuffed soldier doll that I painted when I was six years old, using only candlelight to see by. That ornament constantly reminds me that this time of year is about finding joy in life — and the best joys are not something that are bought from a store. It's the smile you see on someone's face because of something magical that comes from your heart.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Kwanzaa. Enjoy Ramadan, and the Solstice, be it Yule or Litha. Happy New Year. Regardless the form of holiday that you celebrate, may you find a small piece of joy that will fuel your heart for the coming year.