The Unexpected Christmas


With wind howling down from the Cascade Mountains, December 1969 was bitterly cold and snowy in Wenatchee, Washington. As a single mother, I and my children struggled just to stay warm and fed. I worked at minimum-wage jobs and attended nursing school, and often I went two or three days without eating at the end of the month to give the children more food. At times even the children went to bed hungry, and none of us had adequate winter clothing.

Wendell was in grade school, Brent was in preschool, and my three-year-old twins, Michael and Michelle, stayed with a state-paid baby-sitter while I was gone. Just four months before, Wendell and I had joined the Church, and as a result my parents, brothers, and sisters wanted nothing to do with us. With the holidays approaching, we really had no one to turn to for help; as a new convert, I didn’t know I could ask my bishop.

Ten days before Christmas, after a great deal of whispering among themselves, my children approached me one evening while I was studying. Nine-year-old Wendell tugged my sleeve and asked, “Mama, when are we going to get a Christmas tree and some presents?” Brent piped up and asked, “Or are we going to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas this year?”

These were the questions I’d been dreading. I swallowed a lump in my throat and blinked away my tears and said, “I’m afraid we’re not going to have any Christmas presents this year.”

“Why not, Mama?” they asked.

“Well, Grandma and Grandpa have asked us not to come over since we joined the Church, and we just don’t have any money for our own Christmas,” I answered.

“Oh Mama, nothing?” asked Wendell. “Santa won’t forget us though, will he?”

I replied that Santa probably wouldn’t be able to stop at our house that year.

For the next few days the children seemed somber. They often stood by the front window and looked out at passers-by and neighboring festive houses. While their playmates bubbled with excitement about the presents and goodies being prepared in their homes, my children quietly accepted the fact that no packages or decorations or other signs of Christmas were appearing in our house.

Our ward had a Christmas party planned for Saturday night, 20 December, but we decided not to go because the meetinghouse was a mile and a half away and walking was our only means of transportation. However, a car pulled up at our house on the evening of the party, and our home teacher knocked on our door.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go to the Christmas party! Get your coats on, kids.”

The party was the first real Christmas flavor to come into my children’s lives that year. I don’t know what they talked with Santa about, but they appreciated his gifts of candy and oranges, and their spirits seemed much uplifted afterward. Buoyed by my children’s renewed enthusiasm, I used their watercolors to paint a Santa face on our front window. Now we had some decorations!

When Christmas Eve arrived, I had only $1.25 in my purse. We walked to the grocery store, where I bought each child two tangerines and the cashier handed each of them a large candy cane. Along with the story of Jesus’ birth, that would be the extent of our Christmas. As we rounded the corner on our way home, Wendell shouted, “Hey, Santa came!” The other children echoed his cries upon seeing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree on our porch. Mounting the porch steps, we saw two large boxes, previously hidden from view, placed next to the tree.

One box was full of food, and the other was full of presents. I could hardly believe my eyes. Wendell plugged in the Christmas tree lights as soon as we moved the tree inside, and the children pinched and shook each present as they set it under the tree. Their eyes were full of wonder.

Next we unpacked the food in the kitchen. The children had never seen so much in one place except at the grocery store. Even Wendell couldn’t remember having a whole turkey in the house.

“We won’t have to go to bed hungry tonight!” said Brent.

I fixed the children a special Christmas Eve supper. Afterward we sat around the Christmas tree and enjoyed the lights while I read the story of the birth of Jesus. “We have a lot to thank Heavenly Father for tonight,” I said. We knelt in a circle and said a prayer of gratitude.

When we opened the presents the next morning, each child received exactly what he or she had wanted. In addition, each child got a warm outfit, gloves, and mittens, and money for boots. Someone had made clothes for the doll my daughter received. The food was enough to last us several weeks beyond Christmas.

I may never know who played Santa that year or how they knew what the children wanted. Everyone in our ward denied involvement, but I’m certain it was some of them. I’ll always remember that Christmas as the best of my life, and my grown-up children feel the same way. We felt the Spirit of Christ that day more than we ever had before and realized that our Savior does watch over his children.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Gregg Thorkelson

Enid O. Ellis assists with compassionate service in the Sunnyside First Ward, Yakima Washington Stake.