How My Family Made Christmas Special, Even When We Couldn't Afford to Pay Our Heating Bill
When I was 5, my family had a pretty rough year financially. My mostly absentee dad filed for bankruptcy, and my mom—a housewife at the time—hadn’t yet earned her teaching degree. We couldn’t pay our heating bill, much less afford multiple Christmas presents or even a tree that year. But miraculously, it was one of the most memorable and special Christmases we ever had.
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At the time, of course, I didn’t realize what an amazing person my mom was. She somehow made that Christmas magical in spite of our circumstances and without asking for any credit. I’m not sure where my dad was that year; I think my parents (who later divorced) were separated at the time. I vaguely recall him showing up on Christmas day (complete with his bottle of Scotch and a present for each of us that he couldn’t afford), but when I think about the magic of that holiday, it was all because of my mom.
The first thing she did was tell me and my two older siblings that instead of a regular tree, we were going to get a fern—and that our mission was to convince that fern that it was actually a Christmas tree. Initially we were skeptical. But when she brought home a small-ish fern, set it on top of a table (to make it appear taller), and strung a strand of lights around it, we were sold. She was so confident as she placed the table in a corner where two windows met. We all noticed that the reflections made it appear as if there were more lights than there were.
Then we popped popcorn (the Jiffy Pop kind), strung it on a long thread, and twirled the strands around the fern tree. We also made shiny garland chains by linking little rings of aluminum foil. We hung some of our regular ornaments on it (the usual balls, snowflakes), but we had to be very careful because the fern was fragile and couldn’t hold much without sagging.
It looked like a variation on Charlie Brown’s unfortunate Christmas tree. But we didn’t care. That tree became our project. My mom spun a tale about how the fern had been sad until we brought it home and how we had made it so happy by turning it into our Christmas tree. How could we have not wanted that tree to feel important? How could we not have willed it to be special? To this day, my adult sister talks about how proud of that little fern tree she was.
The tree wasn't the only negative thing my mother turned into a positive. In the days leading up to that Christmas, instead of complaining about how we couldn’t pay our heating bill, my mom told us we were going to have a series of fun campouts.
She and my older brother Christopher built a roaring fire, got out some sleeping bags and blankets, and laid them all out in a row on the living room floor, in front of the fireplace. Using the pillows from all our beds, my sister created a cozy nest for the four of us—me, my mom, my brother, and my sister. And of course our black Labrador retriever, Milo.
Some nights that winter we would sing Christmas carols and roast marshmallows on coat hangers over the fire’s flames. If Milo was lucky, he would get an overly burned one. It wasn’t exactly chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But to me, it was superior.
Occasionally, we also had hot cocoa, a major splurge. We sang, harmonizing well into the night, until all that remained of our blaze were a few glowing embers. Other nights, we would simply sit and stare into the fire, mesmerized by its warm glow, drawn like moths to the blue flames flickering inside the yellow-orange ones. Then we snuggled close and drifted off.
What's most amazing about my memories of that winter is that I never once felt unfortunate or underprivileged or poor. Instead, I felt like we were in on this special secret. We knew how to have a fun adventure right in our own living room. I couldn’t understand why other families didn’t do the same thing. Why wouldn't you sleep as a family in front of your fireplace and roast marshmallows if you could?
We couldn’t afford to get our friends and extended family store-bought gifts, so we made them batches of sugar cookies in the shapes of Santas and reindeers, delivering the sweet concoctions on paper plates, covered in plastic wrap with a red or green bow on top.
Even in that lean year, we got out our stockings—big red felt ones that my mom had made for each of us when we were born. Mine had an angel on it, my brother’s had a reindeer, my sister’s had a tree. We hung them up on the mantle and laid out some of our sugar cookies for Santa, along with a glass of milk.
The stockings also served as place markers so that Santa would know where to put each of our presents. At our house, the gifts from Santa came unwrapped. Wrapped presents were from other family members or friends. And the stockings didn’t contain anything fancy—tangerines and nuts, sometimes chocolate, a pencil or pen. But we didn’t care. They served as evidence that Santa had actually been there. That plus the missing cookies, trail of crumbs, and half-full glass of milk.
That year, Santa brought me a baby doll. She didn’t come with a nice toy stroller; she came in a simple basket and wrapped in a little blanket. I loved that doll. I named her Melanie.
Not every Christmas was as pared down as that one, but we did keep some of the amazing traditions that we started then. Others emerged along the way. When he became a college student, for example, my brother started reading Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” aloud to us on Christmas eve. It's a sweet story about an unlikely friendship between two distant cousins, a sixty-something woman and a 7-year-old boy. I still get teary-eyed when he reads the opening lines.
Money-wise, things got better for us over the years. We got a “real” tree, and Santa was even able to bring us each more than one gift. More importantly, we could afford to pay our heating bill.
But I missed camping out together in front of the fireplace. I missed hearing the rhythmic breathing of everyone dozing off around me and watching the fire turn into a glow, snuggling up next to our lab and each other. That was the best Christmas gift I've ever gotten. I still do miss it.