When I passed a Christmas toy collection box the other day, I looked inside and saw it was empty. I felt guilty since I hadn’t put anything in it yet. I know firsthand how important help at the holidays can be.

When my children were young, I made a big deal out of holidays. We celebrated Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Easter with abandon, but it was at birthdays and Christmas when this mom really went wild.

I realize now I was overcompensating for the struggles they lived through because I didn’t have the guts to get a divorce. But that’s another story, and it stops where this one begins.

Finally, we separated from him. My girls and I moved to an apartment. I started substitute teaching. Money was tight. Christmas was just a few months away.

A friend who worked as a school secretary suggested I apply for a job as a personal aide for special needs students while I looked for a regular teaching job.

I wound up as a full-time aide at her school, with a steady though small income and a reality check every time I started feeling sorry for myself and my own kids.

When December came, I panicked. Where was I going to get the money for our biggest holiday blow out of the year?

Time for new traditions. I explained to my girls that although Santa would still visit, I couldn’t afford to buy many gifts. They seemed fine with that — after all, he’d always left the best gifts of all under the tree. And we did have a tree.

I knew what my daughters wanted most for Christmas: a Barbie dream house for the younger one and a sewing machine for her older sister.

I found the first on sale and bought it. I hid it at the friend’s house who’d help me get my job. I told her about the sewing machine, but that I couldn’t find one I could afford.

We were talking about that in the teachers’ lounge the next day when another staff member spoke up. Her mother planned to trade in her “gently used” sewing machine for a more advanced model. Just like with a car, she wouldn’t get much for the trade-in.

She called her mom, who wanted a very fair price for the machine. I asked if I could get it before Christmas with just a down payment, and she agreed.

OK. Santa was covered. I scraped together enough money for a few small gifts from me. I relaxed a little bit.

But on the last day of school before Christmas break, I felt a little glum. I’d done the best I could, but I felt it wasn’t enough. I unlocked my car door and saw a present in the driver’s seat. The tag read, “To Barbara, From Santa.”

At first, I couldn’t figure out how someone had unlocked my car. Then I realized I kept my purse in my friend/co-worker’s office.

Suddenly, I saw the rest of the presents. My car was full of them, all wrapped and tagged with my children’s names.

My first impulse was to carry them all back inside the school. I still had some pride. But then I thought about the little tree waiting with my little girls. I drove home.

The three of us carried the presents upstairs. They stared at the mountain of gifts and then at me. I told them the truth — that they were in my car when I left work. I knew I had my co-workers to thank. I felt the true spirit of Christmas, and I felt humbled.

We had a great Christmas. Everything was perfect. We hung from the top of the tree the star ornament that was in the box on my seat in the car.

I know what it feels like to struggle to buy Christmas gifts for your children. Fill those collection barrels. Give to the bell ringers with the kettles. Take a name off the tree in the mall. Do one of them or do all of them or do something different. I will, too.

Reach Barbara Greenberg at bgreenberg@dancomnews.com.

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