Here's why I will always have a special thought for the orphanage at Christmas. The following is an excerpt from chapter 14 of Citizen of Happy Town:
"In the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a friend of ****'s visits us dressed up like Santa. While I'm grateful for the thought, I'm not at all impressed. I come from a place where we didn’t have the luxury of believing in fairy tales. I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus and I’m quite certain the cheques left by the neighborhood’s Tooth Fairy of would have bounced.
And so *****, ***** and I celebrate Christmas for the first time together. We spend the evening, toasty warm, by the small wood-burning stove in the basement of our house.
It’s a quiet night, filled with a simplicity that makes me feel safe. So much so that, if someone asked me to describe what tonight means, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant; the first and only word to come out of my mouth would be “family”. Not because it’s the word I think others would want to hear but because at long last, it’s a word I can now truly feel.
It’s difficult to resist the temptation of comparing this present night to Christmas at the orphanage.
I can still remember the feeling of anxiety growing inside of me as preparations were underway for my first Christmas in Happy Town.
I was sitting on the lowest step of a tall ladder that had been used to hook ornaments on top of a giant tree. Well, I’m pretty sure it was a giant tree. Then again, when I was seven years old I was so little I could make anything look gigantic just by standing next to it.
The adults had been running all day like headless chickens to make sure everything would be perfect for the big night, now just a few minutes away.
In the weeks leading to the holidays, I had heard the other kids from school describe what a Merry Christmas was going to entail for them. The words they used sounded beautiful, but I couldn’t associate any of them with my own experiences. I was so relieved the teacher never called on me to make me tell my December 25th stories because until then my only memory of it was that of my brothers, my sister and I sitting by the electric stove in our apartment. We had cranked it up to the max and left the oven door opened to help keep us warm.
The few words we heard that morning were from my sister when she reminded us that it was indeed Christmas morning. Need I point out there were no presents to unwrap?
There I was, just a couple of years later, living in an orphanage where, ironically, I was about to actually celebrate Christmas for the first time.
Thanks to the other kids from school and to the description they had given in class of their upcoming holidays, I had discovered what Christmas was truly supposed to be and it wasn't what had been in the making that day at the orphanage. At the same time, I now knew what being safe and warm felt like on this cold but special winter night. The weight of the envy I was feeling toward my classmates was equal to the weight of my gratitude for what Happy Town was giving me. My heart, my skinny legs also, didn’t have enough living in them, and thus, not enough strength to carry that burden. The ladder was the closest thing to me when the weight became too heavy and my knees buckled.
When she noticed I was sitting there alone, Carol came to me and asked how I was feeling. Honesty being a top rule there, all I could do was to tell her that I felt happy and excited about the night to come, but I also felt kind of bad for wanting, just as much, what my friends at school were having with their families at that same moment. I told Carol I knew Christmas wasn’t supposed to be what was about to happen. She convinced me to try and live in the moment so as to not miss the little joys life was so going out of its way to give to me.
I took her advice. All of us - the orphans, along with the Educators and some very special guests - marched to the orphanage’s auditorium to celebrate Christmas. We were treated to an entertaining show of skits and songs put together and performed by some of the police officers from the local precinct. They had raised money through various events and rehearsed their performances just so they could buy us gifts and entertain us. All of them had left their families behind on Christmas night to spend time with us instead.
As presents, I received a small worktable with real tools and a guitar. I laughed and sang all evening long, such an extravagant affair for a kid who didn’t have a family.
For these few hours, it no longer mattered where or who I was. Not once did I even think about what the other kids from my school were enjoying on their side.
Thanks to Happy Town, to its people and a few generous souls, I had learned that happiness exists regardless of where we sit. Even if it's on the lowest step of a very tall ladder in an orphanage. I felt safe and warm, much like I do on this simple Christmas night by the stove with ***** and *****.
A heated shelter and the promise of a tomorrow are sometimes the best gifts of them all."