Christmas in Paradise


It wasn’t easy, living at Dad’s vet clinic. But was Christmas going to the dogs?

“No Santa this year,” my sister Lindi whispered to me. “But we have each other. Besides, next Christmas we’ll have a house.”

What! No Santa? My sister’s remark echoed in my mind. I could do without Santa, and I knew we were lucky to even have a place to live, but how would the younger children understand? Tears formed in my eyes when I thought that the lack of money would make my younger brothers and sisters learn the truth about Santa.

It was almost December. Two years earlier we had left our home in New Jersey for California to support our dad’s dream of owning his own veterinary practice. We left with the hope our house there would sell within a few weeks and we’d buy one in California. It didn’t sell, and the eight of us, and our large German shepherd, spent our first California Christmas in a 20-foot trailer.

A year later the house still hadn’t sold, but we were able to move into the back of Dad’s veterinary clinic. Six of us shared one bedroom, but we each had separate “areas” and thought it wonderful to have our own beds.

Paradise, California, was not a wealthy community. There were a lot of retired people and a lot of young families. Dad couldn’t stand charging those with financial struggles the normal fees, so we adjusted to less material lives, shopped at bargain stores, and dreamed about our future house. In those two years we made a lot of friends and not very much money.

But as Christmas approached, I knew friendship wouldn’t fill the stockings.

I was wrong.

The week before Christmas Dad came back into our apartment at least twice a day with tears in his eyes and candy, cookies, or fruit in his hands. The cards attached to these presents were messages of love and faith. Newly found friends were acting as if we were family.

On Christmas Eve we returned our clients’ kindness by caroling to their doorsteps. We gave our voices, and then a jar of honey from the bees we raised in New Jersey. Our off-key voices competed with barking watchdogs. Then we hugged a lot of adopted grand-aunts and -uncles and went home laughing.

When we got back to the clinic, my brother Vance jumped out of the Suburban. He came back quickly with a ham in his arms. “Santa came! Look! There’s a box of food and this big thing.”

We dashed to the back porch. “Cake mixes and Jello! Wow!” Laurel screamed.

“Dad, look—tamales in cans. You love tamales,” Brett said. We sat under the porch light joyously pulling things out.

Christmas morning we ran to the waiting room where our stockings had been propped in front of the reception desk. “I don’t think Santa left much this year,” Mom said. “What’s in there? Oh, look Lee, he left oranges in the toes.”

“And walnuts and almonds!” Vance said, excitedly. We dug through our stockings for the trinkets and some change Santa also left. Laurel told me she was glad Santa found out where we had moved. “They believe Santa came!” I thought.

Mom and Dad went out back to bring in their presents when we heard Mom call, “Oh, come here!” We all went running and looked outside to see two boxes this time—one full of presents and one stuffed with a turkey.

We brought it all into the cage room and unloaded our third bundle from “Santa” with excitement and disbelief. There were gifts for each of us—all from Santa Claus.

“Does Santa come more than once a year?” asked Bliss.

“I guess anything is possible,” Dad said, and I watched as he and Mom exchanged a look of shock and relief.

Later, as we ate dinner, we heard singing and then a deep voice calling, “Santa’s here!” We hurried for the fourth time to the door. There was a mobile home with Santa and Mrs. Claus out front carrying presents. “Hey, little one,” Santa said to my sister, “what would you like for Christmas? How about a big doll that walks?” He unloaded a doll for Laurel. She nearly burst saying thank you, then hugged him around the neck.

“How about you, young man?” Santa handed a packet to Vance. Vance was speechless. He gently took the package and stood staring with wonder.

The process continued. Mom tried to get their identity, but they simply said, “Merry Christmas!” and left after our abundant thank-yous.

When we got back to the cage room we looked at everything that had been brought and talked about the blessings we had. I will never forget what we learned in our home that season—that the presents were a treasure, but the real gifts were in our appreciation and the generosity of others. Our neighbors and friends shared the most priceless gift with us, the pure love of Jesus Christ.

[photos] Photography by John Luke