Papa, Mama, and me in 1985
“Is that what you think Christmas is all about?” Papa asked me that long-ago 1950 Christmas in Utica, New York. I was nine years old. What did I know! As with most children, my idea of Christmas was the one the media made millions of dollars promoting with their steady barrage of newspaper toy ads, radio spot ads, and even television commercials, primitive as they were back then.
My father was a man short in stature, perhaps 5’6,” but standing over me, straight as a board, he seemed a giant. When he spoke, we listened. We knew beyond a doubt he loved us, and like our mother, would do only what was best for us. “Presents?” Papa was asking me now. I nodded. “All those expensive toys the stores sell at prices who knows how people could afford?” I stood there, no longer nodding. I could hardly look my father in the eye.
He was a hard worker who was holding two jobs: one in the daytime as a welder at the railroad yard, the other in the night hours baking bread in a local Italian bakery. He never complained, but now especially, this Christmas season, though he slaved away, he did not earn enough to buy beyond life’s necessities. My mother tried hard to stretch the money he brought home so we lived on a tight budget. I didn’t have a clue about our family finances back then because life seemed good and the family laughed a lot. Along with my parents, sisters Anna, Joanie, Baby Sarah, and older brother Al, we seemed to me to be wealthy enough to make Christmas something to remember.
On the sewing machine the scrawny little tree sat decorated with an excess of colorful ornaments that only last year dotted a much grander Christmas tree. But now it stood there, a bit askew, and under it a few neatly wrapped presents––enough for each of us––
in boxes too small to fit the gifts I had jotted down on my Dear Santa list. No pair of boxing gloves for me. No wooden sled. On each package tag in my father’s florid writing each of our names after a huge drawn “TO.” And on all of them another largely drawn “FROM” and under it “With Love from Papa and Mama. Merry Christmas!”
But I had spoiled it all. We had just returned from midnight Mass at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church on snowy Blandina Street, anxious to rip open our presents that traditionally were safely locked away somewhere––our parents’ closet? Under their bed?––and now suddenly appeared like a disappointing dream under that embarrassing tree.
“Is that all the presents?” I had asked as I headed quickly to the sewing machine console upon which sat that tree with its skimpy needled branches hanging over the gifts.
Looking at the faces of my sisters and brother, it was apparent they too were disappointed, but Al, the oldest and wisest, said, “Look, there are lots of presents for everybody!” His words may have been wise but nowhere near consoling. I knew without tearing through the wrapping that my Christmas present would be none of the items I had told Santa, in whom I no longer believed, that I wanted.
We were all hungry. In our family an after-midnight dinner followed midnight Mass. As we did daily, we would say grace before meals and then feast on Mama’s lasagna and her braccioli, beef stuffed with salami, cheese and eggs. It was a gastronomical treat, but now as Papa loomed over me, disappointment with a touch of anger on his face, no one
dashed for the kitchen. Except for my mother fixing places at the kitchen table, we were waiting for Papa to go on or maybe my sisters and brother were waiting for me to all at once start crying. At nine I was too big for that. Still, inside me a little boy was sorry he had spoken out of place. That little boy was crying.
“Pa, I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t mean––”
“What did you mean? Was I right? Christmas with lots of expensive toys?”
I shifted onto my other leg. I still do that when I am nervously uncomfortable. Then I shifted back on the other leg. “It’s just that we wait all year. And I wrote that Santa letter.” Papa nodded. He had found it on the closet shelf above where he hung his winter coat. “I figured maybe I could have––”
Papa interrupted with a raised voice. “’I could have! I could have!’” he mimicked.
“Christmas. The day Jesus was born. In a poor stable with donkey hay for his mattress. His mother who brought God’s Son into the world. What presents for Him? The Three Wise Men brought––”
Papa turned to my sister Joan and shook his head. He was not about to explain the gifts of the Magi.
Papa ran his hand through his wavy black hair, tamped down his moustache, and continued. “This is Jesus’ birthday! What do you think? It’s yours? It’s the birthday of every kid in the world who’s crying for presents?” Then Papa folded his arms the way he did when the punch line was coming or the life lesson or the gist of his stories. We all waited attentively. “Jesus Himself was the gift! Can you understand?” Then he turned around and looked at all of us kids, not just me. “He came into the world to save us all. You’re looking for big presents I cannot afford to give you. I don’t have the money to make Christmas the Big Day of Toys.” At this point my sisters are all crying. I want to but I can’t. Al and I stay strong. “He died for us so we could go to heaven someday. He did not die so we can all buy presents and forget why He was born on Christmas Day. The only true Christmas tradition is thanking Jesus Christ for being born!”
I stood there learning one of the most profound lessons of my lifetime. I wanted to say again how sorry I was, but once was enough because words don’t always do what we mean them to do. Instead I hugged my father and let the tears come and wet his white dress shirt. He bent down and hugged me back.
Then Papa stood up, his hand on my shoulder, and winked at me. “Come on,” he said to all of us. “Don’t keep Mama waiting. Let’s sit down now and eat. Later we can open some presents.” We all followed him into the kitchen.
Salvatore Buttaci, author of Flashing My Shorts