My Best Gift and Forgetting to Shop

by | Dec 3, 2017 | The Writer's Life | 4 comments

 S. Lee Manning: Every year, it was the same: Christmas Eve, the Christmas tree laden with lights and ornaments, my two children looking excitedly up at the tree, and with voices filled with hope, wondering what Santa would bring them.

My reaction was always the same. Hell. I forgot to shop. They’ll have nothing from Santa.
I would jump in the car and race to the mall. Nothing. Everything sold out. I’d try the drugstore. Same. More and more desperate, I drove to more and more stores. I’d find maybe one old game with pieces missing.
Then I’d wake up.
I had the same nightmare every year, starting around Halloween and lasting until, well, after Christmas. It was always the same. Christmas Eve, and I’d forgotten to shop.
An odd recurring nightmare for a nice Jewish girl, isn’t it? Since my husband is not Jewish, we celebrated holidays in a secular fashion on both sides – yet I never had nightmares about forgetting the matzo for Passover or forgetting gifts for Hanukah. (To be honest, we didn’t give gifts on Hanukah. We lit candles and sometimes made latkes in all their greasy glory, but no gifts. Hanukah is a minor holiday that was blown up for Jewish kids so they would not feel completely left out amidst the cornucopia of material splendor that is Christmas.  Since my kids got more than their share of stuff for Christmas, they didn’t need more for Hanukah.)
No, my nightmare was always Christmas. Always. Part of the reason may be that from the moment the last bit of Thanksgiving disappeared into turkey chili or turkey tetrazzini or turkey curry, my job, either full-time or part-time when I had actual gainful employment, was Christmas Mom – and my nightmares were simple performance anxiety.
My husband, the one who grew up celebrating Christmas, was more practical than I was.  He wanted the kids to have a good time at Christmas, but he thought I overdid it. Every year, he told me not to go crazy. And every year, I ignored him. 

I was Christmas Mom. Forget writing from Christmas to January. Forget hobbies. Forget anything else. I shopped. Then I hid the presents in a closet downstairs that the kids never visited. Every night, after they were asleep, I hid inside that closet myself with wrapping paper, tape, scissors, and a black felt pen to scribble initials – and I wrapped. I made neat piles of gifts. I counted to make sure both kids had the exact same number of gifts. Which never happened. Which meant I had to go buy something else for the kid who was one down– and then discover that I’d miscounted – so I’d go out and buy something else.

Every year, there were the items that were hard to find but that either Jenny or Dean had specifically requested in their letters to Santa. One year, Jenny wanted a particularly popular doll – that was almost impossible to find. I wound up meeting a friend in a parking lot who’d managed to snag the doll from a Toys R Us somewhere close to Philadelphia. I felt like a drug dealer when we made the exchange.
Every year, Dean wanted the newest Land Before Time video – where talking baby dinosaurs had ridiculous but benign adventures (except for the first video where the mother died). Every year, the damn thing came out just a few days before Christmas, which left me little leeway to find a copy and sneak it into the downstairs closet.
But despite the nightmares, it worked. By Christmas Eve, everything would be wrapped, and the piles would be even.
Every year, leading up to Christmas, we’d watch Christmas movies that featured Santa or reindeer. We’d bake sugar cookies shaped into reindeer, trees, stars, and angels, and ice them with about two inches of pure sugar and fat. We’d decorate the tree, play Christmas music, and sing Christmas carols.
Every year, on Christmas Eve, faces filled with anticipation and thoughts of magic, Jenny and Dean would put out a glass of milk and a few of the iced sugar cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. Sometimes a few snowflakes would drift down, most years not. (We lived in New Jersey, and White Christmases were rare.)
After the children drifted off to sleep, my husband and I would carry the wrapped toys up from the basement and pile them around the tree. We’d eat the cookies, pour back the milk, and return the carrots to the veggie bin.  Downing those cookies was a tough job, but someone had to do it. The kids would have noticed if we’d put the sugar cookies back, and we were intent on maintaining the Santa illusion.
So every year on Christmas day, for a few short years, Jenny and Dean came down on Christmas morning and believed in a mythical and giving Santa who flew with the help of reindeer and materialized in our house. We idealize so much about childhood that we sometimes forget childhood is not always a wonderful time. There are slights and hurts and disappointments – and as children grow older, harder realities hit.  Which brings me to the other reason for my recurrent nightmare. I so badly wanted to give them the gift of magic at Christmas – for whatever brief time it lasted.

My yearly nightmares ended after Dean, the youngest, discovered that Santa Claus, as portrayed in books and movies, didn’t actually exist, and my job as Christmas Mom was over. Jenny is now 31 and Dean 25. Christmases are more restrained these days. There have been a few years when we did not see Jenny and her husband for the holidays – although this year all of us will be together.  There will be no carrots for reindeer, although I’m hoping for a sugar cookie with two inches of icing. It will be wonderful and loving, even without any snow. We may watch a Christmas movie or two, I may talk Jenny or Dean into caroling.  And we can exchange fond memories of the Santa years.

We Rogues are writing this month about our best gifts for Christmas. I wasn’t sure what to write about – no one particular gift stood out in my mind – until I started thinking about my old recurrent nightmare. I realized that the best gift I ever received was the gift I worked so hard to give – for a few brief shining years, I had the joy of watching my children experience a world where magical things happened.

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Jamie Freveletti

    Lovely story and beautiful ending!

  2. Gayle Lynds

    Love this story! Beautiful expression of how we celebrate.

  3. Karna Bodman

    Yes, celebrating the "magic" of Christmas is what it's all about! Thanks for sharing your memories!

  4. Chris Goff

    I laughed when I read about your meeting your friend to make the doll exchange in the parking lot in Philadelphia. I can remember a few scrambles to come up with the elusive toy. Seems like there's always one toy or item that's impossible to find–and yet, somehow…. And your story about hiding the presents and wrapping them in the same closet made me smile. My grandmother did the same, and years later my mother admitted that–not only did she know where the closet was–she unwrapped all the presents, peeked, then rewrapped the presents and acted surprised. Hiding the presents from Mom was always my biggest challenge. Great stories.