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Adopting a Family for Christmas December 19, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays.
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8 comments

This year I adopted a family for the holidays at my school. Staff and parent volunteers worked tirelessly to deliver baskets to 80-plus families.

In the spirit of recycling, I came across the first story I ever had published and thought I’d reprint it.  Operation Santa Claus was appeared in Parents in December 1993.  When I reread the article, what jumped out was how my writing has evolved.  I’m inserting some original commentary in italics that was edited out.  My original piece wasn’t so saccharine. WARNING:  Reading this could induce a diabetic coma.  Always, Jan

Operation Santa Claus

Last year, as Christmas approached, I started wondering if this would be my son Taylor’s last Christmas as a believer.  After all, he was eight, and as a native new Yorker, he’s a born skeptic.

But my husband, Richard, and I had perpetuated the myth of Santa very well. Taylor and his five-year-old brother, Ian, wholeheartedly believed that a man who had a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly parked his team of flying reindeer on the roof of our ten-story apartment building and popped down our chimney to deliver presents to us.  Each Christmas Eve, Santa wrote the boys a long letter in flowing script.  Each Christmas morning, the boys found the fireplace screen pushed aside and  large boot print in the soot, irrefutable proof that Santa did indeed exist.

I wanted to help Taylor – who spent hours working on his list for Santa, even attaching coupons in case there was a Toys “R” Us near the North Pole – begin to understand the joy of giving before he discovered the truth.  But how?

That’s when I heard about Operation Santa Claus.  Sixty-plus years ago, clerks at the New York City General Post Office knew that the letters addressed to Santa that they received would go unanswered.  So they dug into their own pockets to buy food and toys for the children. Eventually the public was invited to respond to the letters, and today many cities have similar programs.  I decided to enlist Taylor’s help.

I wandered around the crowded post office lobby until I found Santa’s official post-office box: a cardboard cutout of jolly old Saint Nick, and two long festively decorated tables that were laden with boxes of letters labeled “New York State” “New Jersey” and “Foreign,” as well as one box for each New York City borough.  I joined a dozen or so people who were busily sifting through the piles of letters.

There were many poignant stories.  One was from a needy mother asking for food and clothes for her children.  Another was from a special education teacher who asked for class supplies. After several minutes, I found the letter that touched my heart.  It was written by a child who lived in a New York City public housing project and began, “Dear Santa, I believe in you.”  I read on.

“I hope you and Mrs. Claus are fine and healthy.  I’ve been sick with asthma and that feels so bad.  My name is Maria, and I am almost 11 years old.  I have three brothers – Juan, age 16, Jose, age 15, and Carlos, age 9.  Carlos is handicapped, but I say to everyone that he is handicapable.

This year we all have been through a lot of scares and crying, including Mom, because Carlos has been very sick and in and out of the hospital.  He has a brain tumor and gets seizures. Our wish is for Carlos to get cured and to be able to walk, talk, and be normal.”

“Carlos and I share a room, and because he’s so sick, he still sleeps in a crib. So for Carlos, I wish a beautiful crib set – one with sheets and a pillow and curtains to match and a quilt.  He loves Mickey Mouse.”

“I would like an American Beauty Queen Barbie.  Juan and Jose would like some presents too. And can you also bring my mommy something?  She always gives to us and she never gets anything for herself.

“Thank you Santa.  I love you, Maria.”

A postal worker sitting behind the table smiled at me and said, “Did you find a letter?”  I nodded, and she handed me a form to sign.  I tucked Maria’s letter in my pocket and hummed Christmas musical all the way home.

Later that night, reality set in.  How could I afford gifts for other children when I could hardly afford them for my own?  (I have to admit, I wondered if maybe the letter was a scam – really, a brother with a brain tumor?) I considered returning the letter but instead let it sit in a drawer for several days.  Still ambivalent, I took a chance and shared it with Taylor.

He was shocked.  “How did you get Santa’s mail?” he queried.  I told him about Operation Santa Claus, but he still didn’t understand.  “Santa will bring Maria the presents she wants,” he said with conviction.

I took a deep breath but was surprised at how easily the words came out. “Making children happy at Christmas is too big a job for just one person to do, even Santa Claus,” I blurted. “Santa needs all the help he can get.”

Taylor went for the lure.  It was as though Santa himself had asked Taylor to be one of his elves.  We resolved that we would answer the letter.  But Christmas was only ten days away, and we had our work cut out for us.  We made a list of Maria’s requests.

The next day I went shopping for a Mickey Mouse crib set.  But even at a discount store, the set cost $45, well beyond our budget.  I called all my friends, but was unsuccessful in locating a used crib set.  I started to get discouraged.

Maria had included her phone number in her letter, so I nervously called her mom.  “You don’t know me,” I said, “But I’m a friend of Santa’s, and I’m calling about Maria’s letter to Santa Claus.”

There was a long silence.  Then Maria’s mom made the connection.  I was relieved to find her warm and friendly.

I was honest with Maria’s mom about our financial situation.  “Of all the people who could have picked your daughter’s letter, I’m afraid you’re stuck with us,” I apologized.  Maria’s mom assured me that any gift, no matter how small, would mean a great deal to Maria.

Sadly, Maria’s mom confirmed that Carlos had a brain tumor and she told me that he didn’t have long to live.  She also told me that Carlos loved to watch cartoons and that Maria had a tape player and liked music, which gave me some ideas.  Maria’s mom and I set a time on Christmas Eve for the package to be delivered.

The big day was only a week away, and Taylor stopped working on his “want” list to join me in a last-minute scavenger hunt.  This is what we found:

•  At the Salvation Army: a just-like-new Mickey Mouse T-shirt.  Paired with some bright red leggings, we had a pair of pajamas for Carlos.

• At home: two never-worn boys’ shirts, a Sesame Street book, and a video of classic Mickey Mouse cartoons.

• From Ian’s kindergarten teacher: an extra copy of a book-and-tape set called Las Navidades, which featured Christmas songs from Puerto Rico (where Maria’s family was from).

• From holiday visitors:  a large store-bought Italian cake, festively wrapped and decorated with Santa stickers, and homemade bread shaped like teddy bears.

• Finally I splurged and paid ten dollars for a video cassette tape of Home Alone.  I also bought some Christmas candy.  Behind the cash register was an enticing display of giant brass jingle bells dangling on red satin strings. “I’ll take four of those too,” I heard myself say.

The day before Christmas Eve, we needed one more item: a Barbie doll for Maria.  I was surprised when Taylor, who gags at the mere sight of a Barbie commercial, announced that he would help me choose one.  Our budget limited us to buying a special-edition Barbie made exclusively for a discount department store.

On the morning of December 24, we found an old corrugated plastic postal carton on the sidewalk in front of our apartment.  It looked very official, so we carried it inside and washed it in the bathtub.  Then we stenciled “To Maria” on one side and “From the North Pole” on the other.  We wrapped the loot in Christmas paper and tied it up with a red ribbon.

Midafternoon, I sat down to write Maria a letter.  I explained that I was fortunate to be one of Santa’s friends.  I told her that I wished with all my heart that Carlos would be better, but sometimes all the love, money, and prayers in the world couldn’t change what was destined to happen.  I also told her that Carlos was lucky to have such a loving sister, for there is no greater gift than love.  I remember crying as I signed the letter “Merry Christmas, Maria. From one of Santa’s many helpers.”

The sun was starting to sink low in the sky when we pulled on our coats. (The housing project was on the Lower East Side, and to be honest, I wanted to get in and out of that neighborhood before dark.) “Wait a minute,” yelled Taylor. “What about snow?  If a package came from the North Pole, it would have snow on it!” Needless to say, there was not an inch of snow in New York City.  So we made some by chiseling ice out of the freezer. We packed several large “snowballs” into a cup.  Finally we were ready.

Richard, Ian, Taylor, and I donned our jingle-bell necklaces and then raced out of our apartment building and down the subway steps.  As people heard us jingling, they turned their heads and smiled at us.

A short while later, we found Maria’s building – a drab institutional high-rise. Richard and Ian held the elevator door while Taylor and I tiptoed over to Maria’s front door and set the box down.  Taylor sprinkled “snow” on the package, and then he took off his necklace and hung it around the top of the package.  “She’ll love this,” he whispered.

We shook our jingle bells and banged on Maria’s door.  As soon as we heard footsteps, we ran for the elevator.  The apartment door opened, and Maria’s mother called out, “Thank you! Merry Christmas!”

Once outside, Taylor was ecstatic  We’d pulled it off! Maria would never expect.  “Next year,” announced Taylor, “I want to answer three letters!”

That night at home, we sat around a roaring fire and drank hot cocoa. Taylor and Ian carefully laid out nine carrots, one for each of Santa’s reindeer. Once the boys were asleep, Santa filled their stockings and placed the presents under the tree.

On Christmas morning, Taylor and Ian awoke to find the carrots gone and the fireplace screen pushed aside.  The same child who had sprinkled snow on Maria’s package carefully examined the boot print in the soot and proclaimed that it was, indeed, Santa’s.

I’m no longer worried about Taylor’s finding out the truth.  Whether he realized it or not, he already knows the biggest truth of the season.  It is better to give than to receive. I think he is going to make a terrific Santa.

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