The urgent, loud knocking on the front door of our townhouse shattered the peace of Christmas morning, 1981. When everyone’s still in pajamas, and it’s Christmas, you don’t expect someone to knock unless you have out-of town guests on the way, who are politely knocking before they go ahead and enter. We didn’t. Ever.
“Who could it be?” wondered my wide-eyed, night-gowned mother. She looked genuinely surprised, not “I knew this was coming and I’m acting surprised.” At 37, she had four children, frizzy hair, a perpetual smile to hide perpetual pain, and a wrapped box under the tree which contained our annual gift to her: Estee Lauder’s Christmas makeup set.
I stood beside her as she opened the door. There was no one there, unless you count the human-sized stack of gifts piled high before us. It was as though Santa had missed our house the night before, and now had sent an invisible elf to deposit our stuff in one magical, drop-and-fly operation. This would have been believable to us, since Mom told us an Elf lived in our living room closet every year from about Thanksgiving to Christmas. “He’s watching,” she’d say, “because Santa can’t be everywhere.” Some days there was a trail of glitter near the closet, or a little note in handwriting that, as you got older, you recognized as purposely-disguised/similar to mom’s. At 12, I recognized the handwriting.
The oldest of six, I watched the rush to the door of my younger siblings, many of whom of course believed in the big red jolly old saint and his spy elf. In our apartment complex, there were no fireplaces, so we didn’t have a chimney (mom said Santa had a key to all the apartments), and it seemed perfectly reasonable that these were gifts from the North Pole that arrived in a slightly tardy fashion. There was a smaller pile of gifts under the short, fat Christmas tree beside which we’d just held hands and sung “Happy Birthday” to Jesus in the annual family tradition. The lateness of the porch gifts, of course, didn’t matter to a little kid when there was a stack of presents to open.
I knew better than to trust this mysterious delivery. As the kids scrambled to bring in packages, I glanced out to the parking lot—first up the street, then down, for the inevitable getaway car and its driver, who’d clearly left the loot. Although I didn’t see evidence of a speeding vehicle leaving the scene, I was old enough to know, with pre-teen cynicism, that someone had brought them.
Then, for no reason and suddenly, I remembered. I knew I’d recognized the generic-looking pile of differently wrapped gifts with different handwriting on each tag from somewhere. Church. Our Catholic Church had a Christmas tree on the altar every year, placed specifically for the purpose of parishioners leaving gifts for the less fortunate. Then, as the crimson blush of humiliation spread on my cheeks, and I felt an imaginary, shameful punch in the stomach, I realized what had happened.
Oh my God, I thought. We are the less fortunate.
The other kids enthusiastically opened the mittens, the Woolworth’s-versus-Wanamaker’s baby doll, the socks, and whatever else people had re-gifted from the year before, or maybe splurged on at the five and dime. My siblings were happy to rip open another gift and they didn't care (or know) that it came from under the tree on the altar at church.
The poor people presents.
I'll never forget the gift I got: ugly yellow terrycloth slippers, wrapped in paper that I just knew was leftover, refolded angel paper saved from last year, with a re-taped used bow and a small hangtag that said “Girl, 12.”
That was me.