Christmas Traditions – by Sylvia Collins

I was 34 years old. A single mother of two children ages 6 and 7.  I had been working four part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. With that many part-time jobs and two small children I found child-care a real challenge. I had a much younger friend (20) who was out of work and needed a place to live. We worked out a deal that gave her a place to live, gave me a live-in helper, and provided the security that my kids needed. 

During this time I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because of the responsibility of my kids, and because I had to keep working I opted for the least invasive option. I would have surgery to remove what they could get, then I would go for check-ups every three months. If there were any changes in my condition, then I would need to have treatment. The surgery had been in February, and this was December. It had been not quite one year, and there seemed to be no reason for alarm. 

I had eventually been able to get a full-time job and make better money. At my full-time job I was working shift work and still needed help with childcare, so my friend continued to live with us. At the end of October that year I got laid off. 

I had used up all of my resources by the end of November and I had not been able to get a full-time job. I had not been called back to my other job. I had been able to find part-time work, but the income from that was not enough to provide what we needed. It was becoming clear to me Christmas was going to be tough.

At this point I made a decision that my kids would have a Christmas, but it would be about making traditions, being together, and above all else an attitude of gratitude. 

There was no tree, and I had ten dollars. We made getting the tree an adventure. We got out our wagon and hiked over to the tree place. I had explained that we needed to find a tree that would fit in the wagon because that was the only way to get the tree to our house. When we got to the tree place they were more than $10.00. We picked a tree anyway, and the man said that because the tree was so small we could have it for ten dollars! How did he know? There… we had a tree. We got it set up and ready to decorate the next night. With Christmas music, hot chocolate, fresh baked cookies and decorations covering the living room floor we had started a new tradition. 

A friend of mine was running the Christmas baskets program that year. He had encouraged me to apply for one myself. I explained that in comparison we had so much more than others. We had a place to live, we were able to stay together, we were all healthy, and I had a very supportive family. So, instead of receiving a Christmas basket we volunteered to help pack them. It allowed my kids the opportunity to appreciate how lucky we were. It allowed them to see that your experience in life is largely based on attitude. Our assignment was to count packets of powdered coffee whitener into baggies and pack the baggies into the boxes. The first day we made a game of it and imagined that the box in the middle of our group was a campfire, so we sat around our “campfire” counting packets into baggies, singing Christmas Carols. We had such a good time that the next day when we were going the kids wanted to take their friends with them. Their friends came with us and we repeated the “campfire” of the previous day. The kids still remember that adventure. At the time they had no idea what they were doing. They had no idea that we were making new traditions. The Christmas traditions that were developing as my young children and I tried to survive the hub-bub of the season were not based on electronic gadgets, expensive adventures or lavish gifts. They were based on personal commitment, investments of time, and giving what we could each personally manage. Because of these priorities we have been able to maintain our traditions despite circumstances. 

As Christmas drew closer and closer I was not coping well. I was trying to stay positive. I was trying to remind myself and my kids that we had much to be thankful for. I had not shared with my family how difficult things had become. They were not aware of the stresses that I was coping with throughout the season. I spent many sleepless nights, a lot of time crying and many hours pondering what to do. 

My siblings and I and all of our families celebrate our Christmas with dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve because that is when my niece and nephew were able to be with us all. The kids and I bundled off to my moms house to celebrate with my siblings and their families. I knew that this time at my moms was our only Christmas. I knew the kids would not be waking up to presents under the tree. I knew there was not enough food to get us through the holidays. I knew that they would be returning to school and all their friends would have great stories about fun family Christmas times and presents under the tree. They would have stories of adventures and the latest “must-have” toy and most modern electronic gadgets or games. 

I felt like a total failure. I felt like I was letting them down because they hadn’t been able to make a Christmas list, or go to bed with great anticipation for the next morning, or dream about all the wrapped presents under the tree with their names on them. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be their mom because I couldn’t do all the things that I was supposed to do in order to take good care of them. I wasn’t reading to, or with, each of them for twenty minutes each day. I didn’t have them involved in after-school programs in dancing, swimming, skating, soccer or any of the million things that the other kids got to do. I couldn’t have McDonalds birthday parties or grab a quick bite of fast food on our way to someplace fun. We didn’t have cable, or a tv that worked. It was a blessing that year because they didn’t become saturated by commercials for all the toys they couldn’t have. They weren’t inundated by the commercialism of that season. 

We had gone to my moms for our Christmas dinner and I was listening to others in my family talk about the presents they had gotten for their kids. I listened to the discussions about spending, credit cards, trips, video games and travel plans. As the evening progressed I became more and more anxious about the next day. On the way home I was dreading being alone, I knew that I would not sleep, and it would be a very long night. 

We arrived home, parked the car, gathered the things that we had gotten at our family Christmas. We went up the steps, fumbled with the door and opened the front door to find the entire living room floor surrounding the tree covered with gifts. There were two smiling faces peeking at us over the back of the couch.

While I was worrying about not being a good enough mom for my kids, making sure we had traditions and that the kids would have positive memories about Christmas, that they would be able to understand being thankful, that they could live with an attitude of gratitude at a time of year when people become consumed by commercialism and greed, two of my friends had been out shopping like little elves to make sure that my kids and I would have a Christmas that would live with us forever. 

The next day we got up, had breakfast, opened presents , and then went for a four-hour walk. I took my camera and many rolls of film. That Christmas I got some of the best pictures of my kids doing kid stuff in the snow. We had such a great day. Each year we do the same thing. We wake up, have breakfast, open presents, and then bundle up (most years) and head out for a long walk. Our family has changed over the years. We have added some, some moved away, some come back, but everyone that knows us, knows that on Christmas day we are heading out for a long walk and mom will have her camera snapping at everything anyone is doing….. 

Because of that Christmas my family has been able to grow up understanding the true meaning of this amazing season. Each year we find an opportunity to do something kind for someone else. Most times the people that we have been kind to have no idea who we are, why we are doing this, or the satisfaction and reward that we get from the experience. 

I amazes me how generous my teenagers are to others. It touches my heart to see how excited they are about planning a random act of kindness. Each year, since 1996, it is something completely different.  One year we heard about a family who had a daughter that was a bit younger than my kids. Because of financial difficulties her parents could not afford gifts that year. My kids had already gotten gifts for some of their friends. Instead of giving to their friends they wrapped the gifts up to go to this family. They gave cards to their friends and explained what they had done with their gifts. 

The first year that my oldest could drive she wanted to volunteer to deliver Christmas baskets. We got our Christmas CD’s and made a morning of getting up early and getting hot chocolate and delivering the supplies to about 25 families. One other year there was a real shortage at the food bank and the kids decided to spend our grocery money to buy groceries for the food bank. One year at my work we had adopted a family through the fire department that needed help with Christmas. My kids made a wish list of their own based on the ages of the kids in that family and we went shopping to provide gifts for the other kids. Last year we bought a whole bundle of 5.00 Tim Horton gift cards. We divided them evenly between us and headed down to Harmony Square. We handed out the cards to people that were enjoying themselves at the skating rink. The only explanation we gave was that we just wanted to give them something to celebrate the season. It was the first year that we had included my two-year-old Granddaughter.

Each year it seems that we are able to do a little bit more to help someone else through the season. Each year my kids seem to become more generous and excited about making our special “Christmas Plan”. They are both working now so they take great pride in sharing some of their earnings to carry out our plans. They are surprisingly generous with their hard-earned money.  

I don’t think that my two friends will ever fully know the difference that they have made in my life, the lives of my kids, and the lives of the people that we have had the opportunity to include in our Christmas tradition. We will continue this tradition as long as we can, and we will also be out walking on Christmas day, no matter the weather. We are thinking about how great the season is, how thankful we are to have each other, and be able to live in this world, country, city, community, that is full of great people. 

3 Replies to “Christmas Traditions – by Sylvia Collins”

  1. Gene Emslie

    Thanks Sylvia for your touching story, how nice that what you created from this situation was children that are generous and appreciative. Thanks for giving us part of you this Christmas. Much appreciated. May your friends who were so generous and kind have someone there for them if and when they find themselves needing support in any way.

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