The best Christmas gift I ever got was R$600 in Brazilian reals from the back of my mom’s underwear drawer, the equivalent of about $120 USD. “You’ll never guess what I just found,” she said when she called me about four days before Christmas. She knew I didn’t have any money that year to buy my kids Christmas presents. It was the last year of my marriage, although I didn’t know it yet, and there wasn’t any money. I had just had my fourth baby in September, and I couldn’t work at the local pub any more. First thing, I kept leaking breast milk all over the place because my baby was so new. Second, I couldn’t afford child care. That job normally meant I could hide money from my husband, who was working at the time but his money was his own. I would hide my tips in my bra and get presents for the kids on sale and hope he didn’t question too much. But this year, all of that was over.
And so, when Christmas came for my sons, aged 8, 7, 1, and 3 months, my mother and I got to the business of scrounging. Any scraps we could find had the potential to salvage the holiday.
The Reals paid for the older boys’ stocking stuffers and nothing for the baby because he was a baby and wouldn’t know. This was what I told myself even as I walked around the mall with him in the double stroller, eyeing the “Baby’s First Christmas” velour sleepers and the soft teething toys and brightly colored blankets. I longed to swaddle him in one of those blankets and rock him in a rocking chair I had seen in Pottery Barn, but The Reals would obviously not cover that rocking chair or even a sleeper.
Once I was on my own, I felt less broken by being broke.
My mother also had some points from the local department store, enough to get them a few of the things on their list that year. I don’t want to date myself too much, but Small Soldiers and Toy Story were a real brand that year, and my two oldest sons wanted nothing more than Buzz and Woody, Chip Hazard and Archer. They wrote letters to Santa asking for gifts for their little brothers, too, but fortunately for us all, the list was basically just cookies and I could take care of those myself.
I pulled that Christmas off with a little help from my mom. She brought batteries for toys in the afternoon when my husband said they didn’t need batteries. She brought food for dinner since we were inexplicably hosting that year. She even brought a “Baby’s First Christmas” sleeper. It was cute, don’t get me wrong, but I hated it. It became, for me, this weird sort of symbol of how I let my kids down. How I was never the founder of the feast. I decided that was my last Christmas with my husband and it was, but it was my first year in a long life of being broke at Christmas.
And I won’t lie to you. I got really, really good at it.
Once I was on my own, I felt less broken by being broke. Not always, obviously. I fell asleep with wadded up holiday budgets on my bedside stand that always ended up in the negative. Watching my kids write their letters to Santa made my heart pound. But mostly I was glad that I moved to a place where pretty much everyone was broke. We all worked, most of us at least two jobs in my hometown. None of us were rich. Our kids all wore the same kind of clothes and had the same kind of bikes. And I’m sorry to tell you that it helped.
There was something about the hunt in those years. Finding the best deal, letting each other in on it.
As did Walmart layaway, a place where I spent much of the holiday season and indeed, probably made friends. Certainly the staff got to know me pretty well, walking in with my overflowing cart of gifts for my kids and then systematically editing my cart to something more manageable. Giving them my little bit of money and then coming back with more little bits of money, all of us commiserating about how expensive it all gets but in a sort of joyful way. Like we knew it was rotten and difficult and frustrating, but also we were all in it for the same reason: to give our kids a break from having broke parents, if for just one day. To tell them that it was OK to want things, OK to ask Santa for a Nintendo Wii because Santa had a friend who worked in the layaway department and kept one aside for me.
There was something about the hunt for me, for us, in those years. Finding the best deal, letting each other in on it. Sidewalk sales and neighbors selling their old, barely used guitar for almost nothing. The local music store that let me buy my biggest gift, my son’s drum kit, in $50 a month installments until it was paid off. A drum kit he has to this day, a drum kit he has told me he will never, ever sell because he remembers how much it meant to him, to me, to all of us on Christmas morning.
Those years did not make us feel worse about Christmas, not always. We still walked around to look at the Christmas lights when we didn’t have a car. We still ate cookies and watched Muppets’ Christmas Carol and read ’Twas The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve. They still opened presents from Santa and then from me when I stopped being Santa.
Those years did not break me, even if I was broke.