I was in my 30s before I realized what a weird game we played at the church Christmas dinner of 1987. It seemed ingenious at the time though.
Someone took a large goblet, pressed play on the tape deck, and passed the goblet around the banquet room. The object of the game: when the music stopped playing, whoever had the glass got to keep all the change.
Each time the cup passed through my seven-year-old hands, I held onto it as long as I could, hoping the music would stop. But it kept playing, and the cash pot (and my excitement) kept growing.
Wonder of wonders when someone hit stop on the tape deck while the goblet was in my hands. I hollered at the top of my lungs and poured the money onto the table in front of me to count it.
A few days later, the same church people provided most of our Christmas presents, and we certainly needed the help. Dad wasn’t around, and my working single mom was struggling to provide for us. But none of that was on my mind on Christmas morning.
When we counted all the presents in our small apartment living room, there were 48. And as far as I was concerned – regardless of what was going on at home – we not only had what we needed, we were rich.
I always presumed mom felt the same way.
A couple of years ago, I reminded my mom of the Christmas cash game and said, “Mom, you know, I wonder if they planned it so that cup would land in my hands.”
“Of course they did,” she said.
“Really?” I said. “I always assumed I got lucky when I won.”
“Goodness no,” she said, “it was a donation.”
It made sense, but I couldn’t believe it took me so long to figure it out. And when I imagined my mom sitting there as her peers clumsily took up a public collection for us, it put the evening in a different light.
“Mom, were you embarrassed that night?” I asked.
“Yeah, a little bit.”
Of course she was. But we would’ve never known it. We were too busy being kids.
Since becoming a parent, I look back on times like Christmas of 1987 and I see my mom in a different light. I grew up viewing her as firm, steady, and unshakable.
Only now am I beginning to realize the insecurity she must have felt when coming to our school events without a husband, the exhaustion of working two jobs, the shame of having to apply for food stamps.
Things are hard enough for parents during the holidays, and no doubt some of you are bearing the burden of things like depression, unemployment, marital strife, health issues, or any other kind of stress. Don't forget that your kids are watching you, but they're not nearly as perceptive as you'd think. They're easily distracted by the lights, the presents, the wonder of the holidays.
Let them be distracted. Let them be completely unaware – they will have most of their lifetime to deal with grown-up problems. Give them the gift my mother gave me, the gift that nobody could've donated to us: a childhood.