The Christmas I was nine remains a fond memory, not because of what I got, but because of what I almost did not. Always, always, my father reminded us, “Just before Christmas, we’re as good as we can be!”
Oh, I believed. I believed I was being as good as I could be. I believed I was to be rewarded with the bicycle of my own, I believed. Well, actually, I believed I was as good as I could be when anyone was watching. I didn’t really allude myself to believe I was actually being as good as I could be. But, I spent a great deal of time and put forth a significant amount of energy ensuring I would be perceived as being as good as I could be. This entailed threats to my brothers should they even think of telling on me, and bribing my sister to clean my room, since I hated that particular required chore.
And so it was that on Christmas Day I be-bopped down the stairs, the railing of which was adorned with the well-worn socks of each of my family members and from which said socks overflowed candy canes, oranges, nuts and apples, and even some skinny gifts like pencils and pens. Our family tradition allowed the children to open our stockings before Mom and Dad made their bleary-eyed entrance on the scene. But no packages under the tree were to be touched.
With glee, we set about our stocking fest and all was well until I reached the bottom. There I found the dreaded LUMP OF COAL! My heart sank. There was a knot in my stomach. I quickly returned the lump of coal to the toe of my sock and pretended it was never there. My brothers and sister did not need to know that Santa had indeed been watching. My parents certainly did not need to know. I knew.
Another part of our tradition required us to watch each gift as Dad presented it to the recipient. We watched as each gift was opened and we ooohed and ahhed and enjoyed each others’ surprises. But that year, the pit of my stomach was hurting, and I could not tell anyone. If I did, they would know my secret. And so I smiled and laughed and opened my own presents from my family. But I kept looking for my gift from Santa.
As we reached the end of the gift giving, my father looked around and declared that it appeared all gifts had been opened and I looked around at my happy brothers and sister and wanted to cry. I had many gifts, but all I had from Santa was that lump of coal and they never even noticed that I did not receive a gift from Santa.
I got up to start picking up and putting away my presents when Dad said, “Oh, what’s this?” From the tree, he plucked a simple little “license plate” with the letters JUDY boldly imprinted. It was a hand-made deal, not the type found so readily today in the local Walmart. My heart picked up a little and I took the license plate, a little bewildered, but hopeful…on the back was a note from SANTA. It said, “Mommy and Daddy will take you to pick out your new bicycle.”
I was so relieved, but I was also a true believer from that point forward. I believed that I was never going to fool Santa or anyone else into believing I was being as good as I could be. I knew I had to actually do it! I was never a perfect child and I got into plenty of trouble, but I learned to be honest and believe it has helped me in my adult life. Whenever I hear the talk of coal, I am reminded of that year -- the year I learned to believe!