The Christmas That Changed My Life

Yesterday they set up a “Giving Tree” at work. It’s a “holiday” tree with tags asking for gifts for underprivileged children. Very much like a Salvation Army “Angel Tree”. As I perused the tags it struck me that it was twenty years ago this Christmas that I had the Christmas that changed my life forever.

It was 1996. My children were “almost 3!” and 6 months old. I was working a full-time job that paid $8.65 per hour, and a part-time job that paid $7.50 per hour. My wife’s full-time job was taking care of the kids. Our total income that year was right around $19,000.

We lived in a 2 bedroom apartment that was clean and comfortable. My wife and I stretched every penny as far as it would go. We got by, and we were happy. That’s all that really mattered.

Then it came time to talk Christmas budget. We were devastated when we found that no matter how we stretched our money, no matter how we shuffled the bills, there was no way we could afford any kind of Christmas. Our child’s first Christmas, and we could give him nothing.

Occasionally we had “stooped so low” as to ask a local charitable organization for help when we couldn’t afford food or needed clothes. I talked to them about our situation, and they said they would make sure we had a good Christmas dinner, and some new or gently worn cloths to wrap for Christmas morning. And they let me know about an event being organized by Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army that weekend at the mall. They were sure we qualified, and encouraged me to arrive early because it would be crowded.

We arrived about an hour early not really knowing what to expect, and were about 20th in a line that grew to over 100 people by the time we left. Volunteers came by to explain how it would work. They had taken over a KB Toys store. We were to walk in and find 1 large gift, a stuffed animal, and 3 small gifts per child. They had reorganized the store to make it easy to grab your gifts and move through quickly.

I wasn’t expecting much, so was surprised to find that the selection was amazing. Real toys, not junk! The large gifts were items like bicycles, tricycles, Big Wheels, and play sets. The stuffed animals were high quality and pretty big. The “small” gifts were real toys! (I was expecting party favors!)

As we “checked out” I began to cry (and am getting pretty teary eyed as I write this). These people were giving my children the Christmas that I couldn’t. I thanked them and gave a hug to anyone that would take one. I cried all the way to the car, telling my wife, “I WON’T let this happen again! I WON’T!”

It wasn’t something I thought through. It wasn’t something gradual. It was instant. Maybe I finally grew up, I don’t know. My family was going to be taken care of. Period.

One month later I was back in school pursuing a degree in Computer Science. A month after that I was dropping out of school again because I had found a programming job in Boston making 2 times what I had been. This was my tipping point. We would still struggle at times, but we would never have to take charity again.

Ever since that Christmas I have made sure of 2 things. First, I would always give my wife and kids a good Christmas. Second, I would always give back. I encourage you to do the same.

Please, if you see an Angel Tree, grab a tag. If you see a Toys for Tots box, donate a toy. If you have the opportunity and means to “adopt a family” for Christmas, do it! This small gesture will bring someone some much needed joy, and might change someone’s life forever.

Merry Christmas.