(The reading of Dicken's Christmas Carol is from my own childhood. Every year, my father would take out his old copy of the story and read it to us over the evenings before Christmas. I first heard it long before I could understand all the words, but I loved it nonetheless, and it became a cherished tradition. He also took us each out for a special shopping trip and dinner out.Those special evenings are still imprinted on my brain. I can tell you where we ate and even where I shopped or what presents I bought.)
“Yay! No more Zoom for two weeks!” Sam shut down his laptop and ran into the kitchen.
“Be quiet.” His 8 year old sister scowled. “I’m still working and Mom is on a Zoom call.”
Sam looked at his mother, whose eyes were still on her computer.
“Zoom, zoom, zoom. I’ll be outside if anyone cares. Which no one does,” he muttered under his breath.
Outdoors the sky was blue and the air cold. A perfect December day. Sam breathed deeply. Maybe he couldn’t see his friends much this vacation, because of that crazy virus, maybe the family couldn’t go up to the snow, but at least they had the outdoors. And no online school for two weeks. He whooped, before he saw his father working at the picnic table. “Sorry,” he whispered.
His father closed his laptop. “Maybe it’s time for a break. Are you ready for vacation, Sam?
“Boy, am I! Dad, will we do anything fun this year? Or do you and Mom have to work every day?”
“Your mother is involved in a project and will probably have to work most of the vacation. But I thought I would take some time off. Spend time with my three beautiful children.”
He smiled at Sam, who grinned back.
“What are we going to do?”
“Well, I think that’s something we’ll have to decide as a family. Because of the pandemic restrictions, we’ll have to be creative. But I’m sure we’ll come up with something.”
“Just as long as it doesn’t involve the computer,” Sam said. “I am sick of online learning, sick of screens.”
“And to think we had to limit your screen time last year.”
“Yeah, well that was last year. I had friends then and could go out and do stuff. So when I was home, I wanted to be on the computer.”
“Well, why don’t you write down some ideas, Sam? Figure out what activities we always do that we can still do, new ways to do others, and perhaps some exciting new opportunities. You can use a pencil and paper if you don’t want to open your laptop.”
“Okay, Dad. I’ll do that. After I run around the block and let off steam.” He smiled wryly at his father. “Wearing a mask, of course.”
His father was already back on his computer and didn’t answer.
As he ran, Sam remembered past Christmasses. What did they do every year? What did he really like doing? Going to the mountains to ski and have snowball fights. That was out this year. Decorating the tree. Could they get a tree this year? Sissy would want to visit Santa. Then he thought of his favorite activity, the nights his father took each child out to the city to shop for presents. He treasured that time alone with his father, dining together, just the two of them, at a restaurant of his choice, the buying of a special present for his mother,.. He guessed that wouldn’t happen this year. With the surge in illnesses, the city was shutting down businesses. You could only shop by standing at the door and requesting items. There was no browsing. And the restaurants had take-out only. Sam sighed heavily. Oh well, there was always next year. But what about Sissy? She was only four. She wouldn’t understand why she couldn’t visit Santa. Maybe… Sam’s brain went into high gear. Maybe there was a way. His father had said to be creative after all. He ran back home. He had to talk to his father while he was still outside, alone.
Monday morning, Sam had a list all ready. His father and he had spent an hour on Sunday taking a walk, just the two of them, and talking.
“No school today, Amanda.” He punched his sister playfully on the arm. “We can do whatever we want.”
“Boring,” Amanda grumbled, not looking up from her cereal.
“I can’t go see Tina, I can’t go shopping, we won’t go to the snow. I’d rather be in school.”
“But Tina, there are all sorts of fun things to do to get ready for Christmas.”
“Yeah, like what?”
Sam was ready. “Well, for starts, I thought we’d make our own Christmas cards this year. We have to mail them by the end of this week. Even Sissy can help. And Mom can do her work without us bothering her.”
Their mother smiled gratefully at Sam.
“I’m sorry to be such a spoilsport,” she said. “But I’m in the midst of a project at work. Sam, it would be such a help if you and your sisters made the cards,”
“We can even write the annual Christmas letter, Mom. I know Dad would do it, but-well, I think we kids might do a better job.”
She winked at him. “Well, go for it. Just tell me what you need.”
“I was scrounging around. I think we have everything except stamps.”
“Sorry kids, I’m already late for work. Gotta go.” Their mother made a show of pretending to look for her car keys, but really just went into her office and shut the door.
“Have a good day at work, Mom,” Sam shouted after her. “We’ll take care of ourselves.”
He turned back to Amanda. “Well, are you in or not?”
“Yes, of course. You need me. I am the artist.”
“You are,” he acknowledged.
While Amanda crafted cards with fancy cut-outs of stars, trees and angels, Sam worked on their Christmas letter. First he wrote a list of what the family had done that year. It wasn’t a long list. Since March, when the pandemic hit, they had mostly stayed home. Well, he could write about what they had done at home then. His mother had learned to bake bread and had planted a vegetable garden. His father had gotten out his guitar and started playing again. Amanda had taken art lessons online. And Sam had taken up the clarinet. Sissy hadn’t really noticed much difference. She played inside with her stuffed animals, played outside on the swings, and went on walks with the family.
“Do you guys want some lunch?” Sam looked up, startled at his father’s voice. Was it lunchtime already?
“Working hard, I see.”
Sam nodded and showed his father his paper.
“Good job, Sam. I’ll type this up on the computer. And Amanda, those cards are beautiful.”
Sam looked to see a full array of cards standing on the table. “Wow, Amanda, you were right. You are the artist.”
“I learned to do paper cutting in my online class.”
“Where’s Sissy?” Sam suddenly remembered.
“I played quietly in my room so you could work,” Sissy said, coming into the kitchen with her favorite plush dog. “But Mopsy is hungry now.”
That afternoon, Sam got busy with his next project. He wouldn’t let anyone see. But he did get permission from his parents to use the family computer and order some things online. On Friday, at the supper table, he told his family about St. Nicholas Day.
“In other countries, St. Nicholas comes the night before December 6 and leaves a present. I talked to the gnome in the garden. This year, St. Nicholas will visit kids here too, if they’ve been good and followed all the rules like wearing masks. So we need to leave some hay in a wooden shoe for his horse and maybe he will visit us.”
“How can he ride a horse all the way here?” Sissy asked. “Where does he live anyway?”
“Well, when he was alive, he was a bishop living in Turkey. I guess he gets around like Santa does, with special magic. Only on a horse instead of using reindeer. In Europe, they see him riding down the street sometimes.”
“Ooh, I want to see him!” Sissy squealed.
“Yeah, well where are we going to get a wooden shoe?” Amanda demanded.
Sam reached into the box that had just been delivered and pulled out a set of decorated wooden shoes. “Ta da!”
Seeing his parents’ raised eyebrows, he whispered, “Remember when you said I could post on Nextdoor?”
“Mrs. De Kruif down the street raises chickens. She said we could have some clean straw. You can go with me to pick it up. She said we can have some eggs too.”
So that afternoon, the three children went together to pick up the straw.
They greeted Mrs. DeKruif staying outside six feet away, wearing masks. But they could go in the chicken pen to gather eggs. Mrs. DeKruif gave them two bags, a large one with straw and one with grain.
“Straw is not hay,” she explained. “Horses like to lie on straw but it doesn’t have seeds and isn’t good to eat. So here are some oats.” Then she handed them a large decorated tin. “Stroopwaffel, a Dutch cookie,” she explained. “St. Nick loves them. And there are enough so you can have some too.”
The children thanked her and left.
“That was so much fun,” Sissy said as she skipped all the way home.
“Yeah, it was,” Amanda admitted. “More fun than shopping, I think.”
Sam just smiled to himself.
The children put out the wooden shoes, straw, oats and cookies that evening before going to bed.
“But you don’t have a shoe,” Sissy pointed out.
Sam shrugged. “I think I’m too old for presents now. It’s okay.”
In the morning, the straw was gone and Sissy found a little toy cat in her shoe. Amanda found a set of colored pencils.
“St. Nicholas leaves good presents,” she said, grinning.
“Well, that’s because you were both so good this year.”
“But you’ve been good too, Sam.”
“What’s that over there, Sam?”
“In the corner by the table.”
Sam looked. A brand new bicycle stood there. A red bike,with blue racing stripes.
“Oh.” He looked at his father and mother. They smiled.
“Yes, Amanda’s right,” his mother answered. “You’ve been wonderful this year, Sam. doing your online schoolwork by yourself, helping your sisters. I think St. Nicholas noticed.”
Sam stood stroking his new bike. “May I go out to try it now?”
“Sure, go ahead, Sam. Be careful though. Drivers are a bit crazy now. And-“
“I know, I know, wear my mask and a helmet.”
Everyone laughed. They all knew the drill by now.
Sam stayed busy. Every few days there was a surprise activity for the girls or even the entire family. He memorized and recited the Night Before Christmas to the girls, who were mesmerized. He found his father’s old copy of Dicken’s Christmas Carol and cajoled him into reading it to the family each evening. He was such a great reader, using different voices and adding sound effects that even Sissy listened although she didn’t understand many of the words. His mother enjoyed it so much, she declared that it should become a yearly tradition. He organized a snowball fight for the family, using foam balls he found cheap online. One afternoon, they pretended that it was snowing and they rode down the nearby grassy hill on pieces of cardboard. Sam found out the place in the foothills where you could cut your own tree was open, so they drove out there and spent a great afternoon outside looking for a perfect tree. There was even a little snow on the ground. His mother took time out from her work schedule to bake cookies as she always did and the kids helped. That gave Sam an idea so he asked his mother to mix gingerbread and they baked it into slabs to make a gingerbread house.
Sam decided they should celebrate St. Lucia Day on December 13 just as the Scandinavians do. Amanda took on the task of dressing herself and Sissy in white dresses and made crowns. Sam found electric candles online and got permission to order them. He found a video with the song the girls sing. Amanda learned it and taught it to Sissy. He found the recipe for the special saffron buns. He and his mother made those on Saturday when she didn’t have to work. Sam wouldn’t tell her why he needed them, just that he wanted to try that recipe. On Sunday morning, the girls, dressed in their white dresses, with a crown of candles on their heads, walked into their parents’ bedroom, carrying the buns and singing. Their parents were taken by surprise and there were a lot of exclamations and hugs. Sam stood nearby, videotaping the celebration.
Time passed quickly. Now it was almost Christmas. But there was still one activity missing, Sam’s favorite.
“Sam,” his father said one morning, when the two were alone. “You’ve been such a great help this vacation. I think Sissy has had more fun than ever, Amanda hasn’t mentioned going shopping once, and even your mother and I have had a great time. Thank you.”
Sam sighed. “It’s been fun for me too, Dad. I learned that helping others can be fun.But-“
His father waited.
“It’s that, well, my favorite time every year is when we have our special shopping trip, just the two of us. And we can’t do that this year.” Sam felt tears coming to his eyes.
His father sat there in thought. “What is the best part of that, Sam?”
“Being alone with you. And buying Mom something special.”
“Hmmm. Well, what would you get her this year if you could go shopping? We could always place an order.”
“That’s not the same.”
“Still, what would you give her?”
“Time.” The words popped out of Sam’s mouth without warning. “But you can’t wrap time.”
“His father smiled. “Maybe you can. Maybe it’s time for me to have an idea. I’ll get back to you.”
Sam nodded happily. What idea would his father have?”
It turned out that their mother had an idea as well. At the dinner table that night, she said,
“You know, kids, I’ve been thinking. We are so fortunate. We have our family, we have a warm house, we have more than enough to eat, you kids have toys. But this year especially, there are families without these things. We can’t go out shopping, we can’t go work in a soup kitchen, but we could make up a packet to give to a needy family.”
Amanda, always practical, answered, “That’s a good idea, Mom. But how could we deliver it? We’re not supposed to be around other people. And where would we get the things?”
“The firefighters are having a toy drive. They might know a family we could help. And they could deliver. And I think it’s okay if we give used things, as long as they’re clean and not ragged. You three have so many toys and books, I’m sure you can find something. And I can add to our grocery order for the food.”
The three of them nodded.
So the next morning, the kids scoured their rooms for toys and books. Their mother told them to choose just one toy and two books for a child their age. She went through their closets and found some clothing. Then she and the kids all piled into the car and went to the fire station. The kids stayed in the car while their mother took the bags into the station. But the firefighters came out and waved at the kids. One of them was dressed as Santa. “Thank you.”
“Ooh, that was fun,” Sissy squealed. “Even Santa came. We’re doing so many fun things this year. I want us to be shut inside every year.”
“No, you don’t!” Amanda and her mother shouted in unison. Sissy put her thumb in her mouth and started to tear up. Sam smiled and mouthed to her, “It’s okay, Sissy.”
When they got home, their father was at the kitchen table.
“We have some business to attend to. Not you, Carole.” He nodded at his wife. You can go take a nap.” She rolled her eyes at him and went into her office.
“Good, she will be busy for a while,” their father said. “Now kids, we need to plan our annual shopping trips.”
“But-“ Amanda stuttered.
He held his fingers to his lips. “No buts, Amanda. Wait until you hear what I have planned.”
He pulled out a box filled with clear round ornaments. “I found these in the attic. We bought these the year we were married, thinking we would make our own ornaments but then we had a baby, and another, and yet another. We never found time. But you three are old enough now. I think the time has come.”
The three children sat quietly, waiting to hear the plan. How did this fit in with shopping?
“I got the idea from Sam. He said the shopping trip is special for two reasons. First is eating at a restaurant. So what if each night this coming week, one of you gets to choose a restaurant and the menu for the two of us to eat together. We can set up a fancy table in the garage.Then Sam said getting a special present for your mother was what he liked. Well, your mother doesn’t really need a gift. But she could use some encouragement. This year has been particularly hard on her, trying to work, help you with school and keep the household going. I thought each of you could make her a card and paint an ornament. I will meet with each of you alone for a few hours to help.”
Sam thought for a moment. His eyes met Amanda’s eyes. She nodded.
“That’s a great idea, Dad. We all love being alone with you, but this year is different. What if instead each of us gets to order the meal for the whole family. That kid could be the special kid that night to set the table and make things fancy and choose the entertainment. And I think we should include you and Mom too. There are five weekdays after all. Then maybe we could all work on the ornaments and the card together. I think a special letter from all of us together might mean more to Mom.”
“What a great idea, Sam!” his father answered.
“Yeah, Sam, you have great ideas,” Amanda seconded. I agree, Dad. Let’s do it Sam’s way.” She smiled wickedly. “That way I can supervise the artwork on the ornaments.”
“What about you, Sissy?” Their father turned to the youngest child.
“I like it when we do things together,” she said, nodding.
“Okay, well let’s get started then. Sissy, since you’re the youngest, you can choose first. What is your favorite restaurant?”
So that week, they had a special take-out meal every night. Their mother was hard at work, trying to finish up her project before Christmas and was grateful not to have to cook meals. She even seemed to really enjoy her special night, ordering from her favorite restaurant and putting on the Messiah for their listening pleasure. The others did the clean-up, even on their mother’s special night. Little did she know what else they had planned.
Saturday afternoon, the three kids and their father went into the basement. They spent all morning there. First they penned a letter together, telling their mother how much she meant to them all. Amanda said she would copy it, using her best handwriting and decorating the borders.
“Now for the ornaments,” their father said. “Go to it.”
“Wait,” Amanda said. “We need a theme.”
“Well, you could each draw what you would like for Christmas. Then maybe Santa will see your ornament on the tree and leave that for you.”
“No, I think we should think less about presents this year.”
“You know, in my class, we were discussing what this year has taught us,” Sam said. “And we came up with some good stuff as well as bad. We discovered we had much to be thankful for and things to remember.”
“Like what?” Amanda asked. She was ready to listen not retort for once.
“Uh, well someone said they had learned compassion for others. Another said family. They did much more as a family now.”
“Yeah,” Amanda agreed. “We have seen each other much more this year. And you know, you are all okay. I miss my friends but not as much as before.”
“Outdoors,” Sissy said. “I get to play outdoors more than before. Mom even lets me be alone in the backyard sometimes. I have animal friends out there.”
What animals?” their father asked, a bit alarmed.
“I have a pet snail, I talk to the squirrel but he won’t get close and the birds hop around me.”
“Those are great pets, Sissy.” He sighed with relief.
“Okay, should we write one word on each ornament? In fancy writing? And decorate it appropriately? Amanda can be in charge and help as needed.”
They all nodded.
By lunchtime, they had an assortment of ornaments. Amanda had gone into her room and come out with glitter glue so they wrote the words with that, using cursive. Amanda wrote lightly on Sissy’s ball and she traced it with the glitter glue. There were red hearts, green holly and multicolored butterflies and flowers on the balls as well.
“These are beautiful,” Amanda breathed, stepping back to look at their work. She read the words aloud. “Time, love, Nature, goodwill, compassion, helping others, family, respect, other points of view.”
“Good reminders, all of them,” their father said quietly.
“Oh, I have two more,” Amanda said. She quickly wrote two more words. One said “Hugs.” The other “Masks.”
Their father held out his long arms and they came together into a group hug.
“Be glad we don’t have to stay six feet apart and wear masks in the house,” Sam said.
“I like wearing my doggy mask,” Sissy said.
“Good,” Sam said. “I like hugs.”
I”ll clean up,” Amanda offered.
“Okay, Sam and I will pack up the ornaments and store them some place safe,” their father answered. “And Sissy, it is warm out now. You could go out and play with your animal friends. Tell the snail hello for me.”
When they were in Sam’s room, putting the box of ornaments in his closet, Sam thought of something.
“Dad, we did all of this for Mom, but what about you? We love you too.”
“I know, Sam. It’s okay. Your mother does so much, I like to do something special for her each year. I learned long ago, just as you have learned this year, that making others happy can be the best gift of all for yourself.” He smiled at his son. “But since you like hugs, could I have one?”
Sam hugged his father hard. What a great family he had.
That was the last big activity before Christmas. The three kids were happy just to play together now. They didn’t even miss their friends so much. Their mother finished her project the day before Christmas Eve and the family took a long walk in the nearby park. It was a beautiful day. On Christmas Eve, they gathered together on the sofa to listen to the last chapter of Dicken’s Christmas Carol.
Bah, humbug.” Their father grinned. The children looked at him, puzzled. “I haven’t heard any bah humbugs since the first day of vacation,” their father explained. “I guess it wasn’t such a bad holiday after all?”
“Thanks to Sam,” Amanda said.
Sam opened his eyes wide at his sister. Such praise was unusual for her.
“And there wasn’t any snow in the mountains this year anyway,” Sam pointed out. "So we didnt miss that. Maybe it will snow late and we can go skiing at Easter.”
“Perhaps. These days, we seem to have to take things one day at a time.”
“I got the best present of all,” their mother said. She wiped a tear from her eye. “I wasn’t happy that I had to take on this project right during the holidays. But you have all been so wonderful. Sissy took care of herself, Sam planned such great activities, Amanda cooperated and helped, and my wonderful husband took care of the household and the family. I love you all so much.”
Sam looked at his father, who winked. Then he looked at Amanda who barely stifled her laughter. They held their fingers to their lips, just as Sissy got ready to tell their secret.
Their mother had no idea what the morning would hold. When Santa had come.
Well, what do you think? Was it a happy Christmas Day for the family? Did their mother appreciate the special ornaments? Did Santa come and leave presents for the children?
I will leave that to your imagination. Just know that along with presents from Santa, their mother found two letters in her stocking that morning, each kid found a letter from Santa, and even their father found a letter (this one penned by Sam). Sam, sitting on his new bike, told his father that the memories of that Christmas were the best present of all.
The words of the ornaments that had been carefully hung on the tree were well represented that day and for many days afterward.
May the same be true for you and your family this Christmas and always.