Let me start by saying that this is a terrible story.
Although, it’s far from the worst one I could choose to tell and just one awful piece of a larger horrific picture, the tale is not a metaphor. Nothing is symbolic. No details have been changed. It all really happened.
I was eight years old that Christmas and, in hindsight, I was a pretty amazing eight-year-old. That’s something I can say now, looking back. Back then, though, I didn’t usually believe I was for a myriad of reasons. As an example of my stellar year, in May, I won the Teachers Association of Lindenhurst Award for being the most outstanding third grader in my elenetary school. Yeah. That’s how fantastic I was. Raise the roof.
Things from my personal life during that period were interesting, to say the least. I rarely share stories from that time publicly and, even privately, they tend to go over like lead balloons. I’ve told many anecdotes from those days only to have my wide-eyed daughter reply, “Daddy, that is a terrible story.” I offer an embarrassed chuckle and move on.
As I mentioned, this is one of those terrible stories.
Christmas had always been the top holiday to me, despite the drama that would spring up around it. When you’re eight, the world could crumble, and you’d still get giddy for Santa’s sleigh. Cotton ball snow art, reindeer food, and trips to the mall all combined to make your world holly jolly once the weather chilled. Mine did.
On the morning of December 25th, I’d always spring from my bed with excitement. It didn’t matter if it was four in the morning, I’d rush to the tree and begin leafing through all the unwrapped gifts waiting for me. There was a magical feel to it all and, at that age, Santa Claus was the man. He was real and he was fabulous. He was the only person who knew I deserved rewards for my work throughout the year.
Looking back, I don’t remember any presents I got during that eighth year of life. That’s not to say that I didn’t receive any. I did. There are pictures of me in my fuzzy pajamas to prove it. It was the cookie cutter Christmas morning I had become used to.
Then, someone suggested I go look in my playroom. Still a year away from being transformed into a bedroom for the yet-unarrived baby, that was the area where my toys lived. He-Man figures and coloring books all shared my special place.
Opening the door, I could see something set up in the middle of the room. As anyone familiar with holidays can tell you, unexpected visions are part of the fun. Whether it’s a parked car with a bow across the street or an envelope with a note that reads “check the closet”, gifts given in imaginative ways are part of what makes the holiday so special. I assumed that was what it was.
As I approached, I could see a small dusty satchel. The cellophane bag was barely transparent from the dirty rocks inside. A small piece of blue ribbon tied it shut at the top like a maccabre summer camp craft. I can still see it, as it was then, in my mind now.
My brain didn’t adjust to what I was seeing until I read the note. Written in what-looked-like purposely shaky handwriting was:
This bag of coal is not because you have been bad. This is because you have not kept your playroom clean…
My whole world crumbled.
I can’t even explain how hard that hit me. This was the ultimate failure for a kid my age. As small as my world was at the time, it made me feel like I had hit rock bottom. Nothing could ever equal that. Sure, you’d hear warning stories all year about kids getting coal from Santa, but even the bad kids showed up with new clothes after Christmas Break. No one really gets coal, right? That’s not a thing.
Oh, it was a thing. It was a thing in my house. The TAL Award Winner for 3rd grade got coal. It was sitting right there in the middle of the room with a ribbon. I lost it.
There were tears and heartbreak all morning. Within the hour, a neighbor told us that she was stopping by with presents and, fearful that she would see my bag of condemnation, I threw it under the kitchen table. I heard one of the adults in the house laughing as I did. It was like another dagger during my lowest point. How anyone could think this was funny was beyond me. It was years later until I understood why someone found it so funny.
I carried that memory with me. If it’s not apparent, I still carry it to this day. I’ve never been able to understand how Santa, or anyone “helping” Santa with presents, could ever do that to a child. Then again, there are a lot of things from that time period that I can never imagine doing to a child. I can’t imagine doing them to anyone. I never have and I never will.
A few years later when I found out the “truth” about Father Christmas, I was relieved in many ways. Weird, right? Who breathes a sigh of relief to find out the big spectacle behind Christmas gifts? I did.
Since then, the holiday season kicked me more than a few times throughout my life. Deaths, heart surgery, and families abandoning invites with no explanation all combined to ensure that seasonal depression worked its way into my bipolar mental health. I learned to hate the holidays, but tried, best as I could, to fake it for the kids.
This year, though, I’m proud to say that I’m not faking it…so far. It’s the first year in a long time that I’m actually looking forward to the season and embracing new beginnings on my own terms. I want to enjoy Christmas for me, not just my kids. I’m making all the plans I can to see that happens.
A big part of overcoming this snow-covered pain is sharing stories like this. There’s no shame anymore. It’s a part of who I am and something that I can honestly say was wrong for anyone to do to me. I didn’t do anything to deserve it and, as the father of two kids, I would never dream of putting my own children through something like that. It takes recognizing how wrong something was when it happened to you to make sure you don’t cycle the same mistakes to the next generation.
That’s why my children and I have good holidays today. None of us get coal because none of us deserve it. I can proudly say that the people who deserve the wrath of Claus are no longer in my life or in my head.
And honestly, Santa, that’s the best gift I could ever ask for.
THE DEAFENING SILENCE OF MENTAL ILLNESS
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