Several people asked me to share this story by email so they could share it with others as a Christmas reflection.
Thank you so much for your generosity and open heart for Haiti’s children and families.
by David Diggs
It’s getting late on Christmas Eve, and I’m six years old. My Grandma is staying with us, so I’ve had to give up the twin bed in the room I share with one of my older sisters. I’m lying under a quilt on a cot they opened up for me in the living room just a few feet from the Christmas tree.
My mother keeps checking on me to see if I’ve dozed off yet, but who can sleep at a moment like this? It doesn’t help that I’m loaded with sugar from the eggnog we just drank while watching the Dean Martin Christmas special on TV. And I can’t stop thinking about the toys that I hope I’ll get. On my birthday a couple of weeks earlier I had gotten the chance to sit on Santa’s lap. I told him that I wanted a chemistry set and a Green Bay Packers football jersey.
But what really keeps me from sleeping is the wondrous opportunity I secretly anticipate. I’m lying on my side so I can keep my eyes on the Christmas tree. Sometime tonight Santa will be passing within inches of me as he brings his bag of gifts in. I half dread this opportunity, too. I want to see Santa, but I’m also worried that I may discover that he doesn’t really exist.
I have reasons for my suspicions. Our house is a little single-story ranch house without a fireplace. “How does Santa get into our house without a chimney?” I keep wondering. And last year I noticed that all the gifts from Santa were wrapped in the same paper my Mom was using to wrap her gifts. And the Santa I had met on my birthday just didn’t seem right. His face was too thin and his beard hung loose on his face.
I thought of this skinny Santa one Christmas Eve many years later when I was living in Haiti. I was on my way to a Christmas party that some friends from another international organization were throwing and had stopped to get a gift for the hosts at one of the few American-style grocery stores that existed at the time. This store went to great lengths to appear as American as possible and imported almost all its merchandise from the U.S. Its clientele was composed mostly of people from Haiti’s tiny economic elite who spent much of their time in the U.S. and had developed an appetite for American things and the status those things offered.
As I walked through the aisles I heard a bell ringing. Turning a corner, I came face-to-face with the bell ringer. It was Santa! While the red suit and hat gave him away, it took me a moment to recognize him because the suit was draped over a tall, thin, beardless man who looked a lot like the stern-faced Haitian security guard who was usually standing out in front of the store. The main job of this security guard was to keep the street kids who begged from clients in the parking lot from following them into the store.
Instead of swinging a nightstick, which the security guard used freely on the kids, Santa was swinging a large hand bell. The bell didn’t compute until I remembered that Santa often showed up at grocery stores in the U.S. swinging a bell beside a Salvation Army kettle. No kettle here, but Santa was making vigorous use of his bell. By the time I had found a gift and checked out at the register, Santa had made his way out of the store. He appeared to be filling in for the security guard, demonstrating to the street kids that the hard edge of a large hand bell could inflict as much pain as a nightstick.
The story of my encounter with the beardless bell-ringing Santa was good for some laughs at the party that evening, but there was a smugness to my humor that I later regretted. The owner of the grocery store had tried to appropriate America’s version of Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick and had ended up with a stern enforcer of Haiti’s class division. As I thought about it, I realized that the American Santa is also a misappropriated version who advertisers have co-opted and turned into an icon for our commercialized Christmas.
The historical Santa was born in 280 A.D. to wealthy Greek parents in the Roman Empire. Orphaned while still young, Nicholas grew up with his uncle and became a humble monk and bishop who spent much of his time secretly giving away his fortune to the destitute, especially to help children. In what is perhaps the most reliable story of his generosity, Nicholas helps a penniless father keep his daughter from becoming enslaved by trying to secretly provide for her dowry. He’s discovered throwing a pouch of gold coins in through the chimney or window. The coins land in a stocking hanging to dry by the fire.
As I lie on the cot, I know nothing of the historical St. Nick. I am drowsy when I hear my mom coming in to check on me again. But this time I pretend to be asleep. A few minutes later she comes back in. Through squinted eyes I see her silhouette against the Christmas tree lights as she begins placing gifts under the tree. She finishes by stuffing each of the stockings that hang on the wall, and then turns back to me. I feel her gently pulling the quilt up around my neck, and then she is gone.
Strangely, I can’t remember being disappointed by the discovery that my mom was my Santa. While a visit from the North Pole Santa would have been magical, I think that it was more deeply satisfying to know that this spirit of generosity and love was embodied in someone who would be present to me all year long.
Looking back now, I know that my mother had much more in common with the original Saint Nicholas than the mythical Santa I was waiting on. While she didn’t have a whole fortune to give away, I grew up seeing her give her time and love and money away to help troubled families and impoverished children in our small town. Perhaps because she had grown up in poverty, she related to them as friends and cared for them without a hint of condescension.
She and the real Saint Nicholas resembled each other because they were both striving to be like Jesus whose birth we celebrate on Christmas. They sought to honor Jesus amidst those Jesus favored—widows, orphans, slaves, and all those who the world had left behind.
I never told my mom about seeing her play Santa. I got the chemistry set, the jersey, and Green Bay Packer pajamas to boot. But, by far, the greatest gift my mother gave me growing up year after year was the way she embodied Jesus’ passion for the dispossessed and vulnerable.
I’m grateful for her this Christmas and for you and the generosity you demonstrate to vulnerable children, women, and families in Haiti. Like Nicholas, what you share helps vulnerable children avoid slavery and secures for them the opportunity I had to grow up in the presence of loving parents.
With Nicholas, my mother, and the host of saints known and unknown around the world, you make this Christmas both merry and meaningful–a fitting celebration of the birth of the babe whose first bed was a manger.