I had a date this weekend with my daughters. It was not my usual weekend to have them, but in the bustle of the holiday season, one important bit of Christmas shopping hadn’t gotten done yet. And, because of some custody adjustments to account for holiday plans, I won’t get them back until Christmas Day. So, my ex granted me Saturday afternoon with the girls and off we went.
To do my favorite Christmas shopping of the season — the Angel Tree.
For those of you unfamiliar with an Angel Tree, it is a Christmas tree decorated with paper ornaments. Each of those ornaments has the name of a needy child (or family, or senior, depending on the tree), their age, and a short list of the things they’d like or need most for Christmas. You select an ornament (after reading heartbreaking lists that have included things like underwear, “a doll, any doll,” and a winter coat “for walking to school.”) Every year since 1996, my family and I have selected at least one ornament — sometimes more, depending on our own financial security — and had the honor of playing Santa for someone who truly needs these things in ways that we are fortunate enough to not understand.
The tradition started simply enough: Bryce and I had been dating for nearly a year when we were Christmas shopping at a local mall near our home in DC. We came upon an Angel Tree, which neither of us had ever heard of, and I, being the sentimentalist that I am, immediately had to stop. But when I began looking at the ornaments, I froze and tears sprang to my eyes. Bryce, seeing my distress, came to my arm and looked at the ornament in my hand and then at my face, still not understanding. But how could he? The name of the organization meant nothing to him and everything to me. It was the orphanage where I spent the first month of my life, parentless. Here was a whole tree full of infants, toddlers and children who, for one reason or another, were spending a Christmas without a forever family. When I explained this to Bryce, he shifted into “Fix It Mode,” as I came to call it over the years. He pulled me over to a bench and sat me down. Then he said, “Get as many as you want to. We’ll find a way to pay for them.” I knew we didn’t have much money. Both of us were in our first jobs after law school and paying down my crushing student loan debt. I was working at a non-profit, while he was slaving away as a first-year associate. The hours were long, the money okay, and the stress enormous. So, I chose carefully. I’m pretty sure we read every single ornament on that tree. Eventually we picked 3 ornaments, and spent the rest of the day imagining what the children on our ornaments were like and stretching every penny we had to grant every single wish on those lists. And we did. Then we went back to our little apartment, spread out our treasures, and took photos of each child’s haul. That Christmas, someone gave me a photo album with a Christmas tree on the front and our Angel Tree book was born. Every year we have taken photos of the things we bought and put them in the album, along with whatever we knew about our recipients. It is so amazing to look back on the photos and remember all those shopping trips, all those children, and all the Christmas spirit the Angel Tree gifted to us.
But it hasn’t always been fun and games. When our girls were younger, there were a couple of years that were so discouraging they were nearly unbearable. Too young and self-centered to appreciate the neediness of others, my girls whined and complained their way through the mall: “This is so boring!” “How come we’re buying her better toys than we have?” “I’m hungry! Are we almost done?” “Why do we have to do this again?” Ugh.
Bryce and I discussed possibly stopping the tradition after two years in a row of that experience, recognizing that the girls’ abhorrent behavior was killing any enthusiasm we had for our Angel Tree trips, as well. But we quickly decided that, no, this was important to us and it was an important lesson that we were determined to teach our children, come hell or high water. Sure, they didn’t see the checks we wrote each month to various charities now that we were financially comfortable. And sure, they didn’t appreciate the volunteering that we did for local organizations we cared about. But they could damn well give up one Saturday a year to a child who probably had a tenth of what they were blessed with. Yes, we were resolute. The tradition would continue. And so it did.
The last two years have seen the fruits of our labor and patience. Now the girls start reminding me after Thanksgiving not to forget the Angel Tree. Last week, they sat together on the chaise in front of the fire and paged through the Angel Tree album, remembering the various trips through the years. And on Saturday, they thoughtfully and carefully chose each gift for Maribel, the 9-year-old girl they selected off the Angel Tree. They laughed and argued about what she would like, selecting various clothes and putting them back until they had the exactly perfect gifts. They have learned over the years that the needs of these children are somewhat different from their own — they pick shoes that are sturdy as well as fashionable, clothes that can be layered for multiple seasons, and how to bargain shop for toys to get that one extra thing she’ll love but didn’t ask for.
I am so grateful that Bryce and I didn’t give up when the girls were younger. They still complain, but now it’s to lobby for the more expensive bike or an extra doll for our Angel Tree child. And when we got home, they argued, but it was over how to arrange the goodies for the photo, each exclaiming that it had to be perfect and the other was ruining it.
After the girls returned to Bryce’s on Saturday, I sat down for a moment with the Angel Tree album and thumbed through the photos and descriptions, marveling at how one heartwrenching moment in a mall 16 years ago and 7 states away has led to a family tradition that might, quite possibly, be the best gift of all.