The knock on the front door glass window was made with the knuckles of a bare hand. The snowflakes were visible through the frosty, front window revealing shadows of three figures. Even as a child, I knew that these shadows of people were special because they came every year around the same time.
Bolting to the door to be the first to open it, I could see through the window adjacent to the door it was the big man himself…Santa and his two elves to assist in the delivery. Pushing the screen door open, I yelled Santa and jumped to him…out in the cold, stepping in the snow-covered porch in my barefeet. Looking up, he picked me up with his black leather covered hands and in a gentle voice said, “HO HO HO, Merry Christmas Jany!”
I held him tight and the elves held the door open as my siblings came to the door. We all knew it wasn’t the real Santa, after all, he was days early but this Santa and helpful elves were equally as important. The badge of the Salvation Army was evident on all of their jackets. These kind and giving servers of mankind were bringing us food and unwrapped gifts since we were very poor and barely surviving on social assistance in a household of seven.
Santa put me back in the house and I ran to get my shoes. Forcing my way back through my siblings as they began to carry some of the garbage bags full of items, I dashed for an open box of can goods. It was important to help and I was clearly going to lift a box that was too big and too heavy for my wee arms and frame. My attempt to lift it resulted in some of the contents to roll off the porch into the snow. I felt a hard slap to my head and the insults flew from the mouths of some of my siblings. My mother reminded me that I was a mistake at birth and would remain as such.
The tears flowed from my eyes and it was the Salvation Santa that lifted me up to comfort me. I remember holding him so tightly, apologizing for the mess and he wiped away my tears. As my sobs softened he moved closer to my ear and told me something that I will never forget…”Jany, you are a sparkle that shines brighter than most….never stop shining no matter what they say!” He put me down, ushered me back in the house and I watched him, the elves and my siblings collected which was lost in the snow and the large turkey which was waiting to be stuffed.
We received so much goodness in garbage bags and boxes through the kindness of others and the unwrapped gifts remained in the dark bags to be revealed on Christmas day. Santa and his helpers left our porch and went back to their vehicle and drove away. I discovered later that Santa knew my name through a list provided to them of each family. The rest of the food was taken to the kitchen and I sustained another slap to the head and a reminder that I was a foolish and evil child.
I huddled by our Christmas tree, full of strings of lights, some worked, some didn’t. Santa’s comment went on repeat in my head. Staring at the lights that functioned, I began to lose myself in the twinkle of the lights. The lights became mini-snow globes holding magical little worlds where there was happiness and bright colours. I began to dream of a beautiful world where I was of value, where I was the hero, where I was….happy.
The dread of the prep of the days to come would resurface quickly as my childhood holidays were more on a Cinderella end of things. Even as a child most of my holiday time and well my childhood in general was spent cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundry (on the old washing machines with wringers that occasionally pinched a finger or two) and not being welcome for other than those purposes. While others sat for dinner, I was left to do the dishes and eat later. I learned to do all of these things at a very early age and as others did less, I did more, sustained a lot of physical trauma from jobs done poorly. There was also no knight in shining armour or glass slipper but I did have a brother that was the most humorous and kind and brought some warmth to an otherwise disturbed home.
My childhood was mostly filled with sadness, insults, abuse, and the daily confirmation that I wasn’t a wanted child. There are enough stories of the others during drug and alcohol abuse, fights, police and other assorted unpleasantries that could give Oprah, Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer, Montel Williams and Heraldo Rivera enough for a season or two. I didn’t think I would survive to the age of 16 and every year since then has been a bonus!
Each year as Christmas neared, my sense of dread grew and a dislike for those that got to celebrate and I did not. Each year I would stare at the Christmas lights and try and lose myself. One year, my gentle brother handed me some paper, pencil, eraser and markers. He told me to draw what I saw. Under the light of the Christmas tree, alone, I began to draw what gave me the most warmth….pictures of Christmas. The anger and dread I felt towards the season would slowly wash away. The statement of the Salvation Arm Santa from years before brought warmth to the tears that ran down my cheeks as I struggled to understand why there was so much anger and disdain around me and I seem to be the blame for much of it…somehow!
One of my pictures, drawn before Christmas of an animated character with a big smile was one of my favourite pieces and I took it to school. Showing it to a favourite teacher (can’t remember her name now) she showed amazement that my little hands drew it. She asked if one could be done for her granddaughter as a Christmas gift. I agreed and after school I hurried home to create the requested masterpiece. It wasn’t long after I sat silently drawing by our Christmas tree that a foot came flying through my hands and the marker went flying. More insults were directed at me and the fact that I would never amount to anything. I crawled around the room collecting my markers and continued to draw. Staring into the Christmas lights as if another universe existed that I could escape to, my artistic imagination arose. The Christmas carols in the background seemed odd but became comforting and Frank Sinatra seemed to give my creativity an extra boost.
The customized piece of art drawn from my tiny hand was met with a huge smile, a thank you and a hug from my teacher. She brought in the final piece framed right before Christmas for me to see. It was at that moment that I found a way out of the sadness of my childhood and a way to love a season that was filled with hurt and would more than likely remain that way until I left home. It was the simple act of making someone smile through my art that brought back the sparkle in me.
So for the years since then, I have been painting and trying to bring a smile to the faces of others. I learned to love the Christmas season again through the smiles of my husband and others, through the fun of Santa, Rudolph and Frosty, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon Christmas Vacation” and well perhaps a little bit of Jack Daniels! The opportunity to have a piece of my art on Christmas trees for years to come is the gift that continually gives to me throughout the year as I reflect on all the pieces I have been asked to create. After all, much of my comfort and the opportunity to be the sparkle that could shine brighter than most was achieved huddled beside a Christmas tree.
I will always be grateful for the kindness of the Salvation Army and the gifts of food and toys delivered by them that were provided by the thoughtful contributions of the community. If it weren’t for them, we would most certainly have had little to no food as we encountered at other times of the year. It was also the gift of confidence of a Salvation Army Santa and some paper and markers that helped me persist and do what I do today. If you have an opportunity to donate food, gifts or funds to them or any other service….it will undoubtedly make a difference….it did for me!
Wishing all of you a very Merry Christmas and may you find the sparkle in you that can shine so brightly and give you the sense of warmth and love in the most trying times of life.