By Jamie Nicolelli
It was Christmas 2000, and I was a single mother of a beautiful three-year-old, blonde haired, blue-eyed daughter. My husband of seven years had left to pursue a more provocative life—family, work, and responsibilities not being part of his life goals. I was left to juggle the rent, utilities, groceries, and all the rest. I had to take on multiple jobs—shoeing horses and working at a single-attendant gas station—just to pay the bills.
Money never went as far as I had hoped even while being as frugal as possible. Bills always came first because I couldn’t see the wisdom in becoming homeless or having the heat and electricity disconnected. My mental health was strained enough without adding those possibilities that would have made life even harder.
All summer, we spent our spare time cutting firewood to burn in the fireplace to lower the cost of heating our house with propane during the winter. Old, downed trees were abundant and free to cut for firewood. We tended a garden in our backyard so we could have vegetables and berries to eat. Many times, I skipped meals so my daughter would have a full belly.
And yes, I say “we,” because at three years old, my daughter worked at my side. I had no money for babysitters or daycare. While gathering firewood she would use a handsaw to cut kindling while I used a chainsaw on the logs. She was there every day while I was shoeing horses or working at the gas station, helping me with every chore. She sat on the floor of the gas station coloring, learning to count change, or handing out Tootsie Rolls to customers while I worked the payment window.
These very circumstances led me to a difficult and heartbreaking decision. On that day, I had no choice. Every parent wishes to give their child the best that they can. So, my heart shattered when I had to pull my little girl into my lap and tell her there was no Santa.
I tried to explain in gentle terms while holding back tears that I was the one who bought the presents for under the tree. But this year, I told her, I could not afford any presents or a traditional Christmas dinner.
Terrified, I waited for her reaction. I felt so inadequate as a parent, it was soul-crushing.
The reaction that I feared wasn’t the one I received. You see, God had truly blessed me with a daughter who is my earthbound angel. In the beautiful innocence of a child, she told me, “It’s okay, Mommy. You can just wrap up some of my stuffed animals from my room and put them under the tree. I’ll forget what’s there by Christmas.”
I was amazed and humbled by her response. That evening after she went to sleep, I sobbed. The grace I was shown by my child dragged me to my knees.
Although still heartsick, I did exactly as my daughter said. I wrapped up some of her stuffed animals and toys and placed them under the tree. As any child does, she wanted to put presents under the tree for me. So, I had her go through my jewelry box and knickknacks to choose items to wrap as presents for me, which she happily did.
When Christmas Day came, she was smiling and staring at the tree with excited eyes. Our tradition was to eat the Christmas meal before opening presents. I managed to purchase Jiffy cornbread and Kraft Mac and Cheese. Back then, you could purchase both items cheaply—four boxes for a dollar.
After we ate our untraditional dinner, we sang “Happy Birthday, Jesus” and several Christmas carols. Knowing she was eager to open presents, I handed her the first one. As she ripped off the wrapping paper, she squealed with delight and exclaimed, “It’s what I always wanted,” and giggled.
Her infectious spirit and joy could not be denied. We spent the evening trying to outdo each other’s enthusiasm with every present. By the last present, our sides hurt, and our eyes watered from uncontrollable laughter.
Later that night, after she went to bed, I reflected on the Christmas we shared. I again cried for not being able to give her the Christmas experience I thought she deserved and for having spoiled the childhood fairytale of Santa and his sleigh.
But in those tearful moments, it was revealed to me what a great gift God had given me. No commercialism, no platitudes, just the joy of being together in that moment, immersed in our love for one another.
The following year was little improved financially. Although prepared for another barren Christmas, I managed to set aside $5 for each of us to buy presents. We went to the dollar store and picked out four items each to put under the tree.
My daughter and I went to the Christmas service at church before heading home to celebrate. When we arrived home from church and walked to the front door of our mobile home, I noticed a black garbage bag was left on our doorstep. Irritated that someone could be so cruel as to leave trash on someone’s porch, especially at the holidays, I wanted to throw that bag away. But as I reached for the bag, a label attached to the top caught my eye. My daughter’s name was written on it.
We looked at each other curiously and confused, then carried the bag inside. To our surprise and her great joy, inside was a new dress, an Easy Bake Oven, several coloring books, and games. She jumped and squealed with delight to have such treasures. Between the gifts we purchased for each other, and the anonymous gifts received, my daughter was given the Christmas experience I had dreamt about giving her but could not provide on my own.
To this day, I have no idea who arranged for us to receive such an amazing gift. If you have ever wondered if donations to toy drives make a difference, let me assure you they do. Although I know Jesus is the reason for the season, those toys and clothes relieved the stress of a mother who could not provide that Christmas wonder to her child—especially my daughter, who had come to expect so little in life.
In essence, someone was Jesus to me. Having to shatter the childhood fairytale of Santa and his sleigh no longer mattered. It was all about being grateful in times of trouble and accepting a gift from God.
That experience forever changed how I view the holidays. It humbled me and taught me a most valuable lesson that has stayed with me to this day. Some of your greatest blessings come from the hardest of times.
Twenty-plus years have passed. Since then, my daughter and I have both been blessed greatly and have much more than we could ever have expected. Every Christmas, she and I think back to that time in our lives and remember that first Christmas we spent with just the two of us. It is still one of our favorite memories. Anytime we have Kraft Mac and Cheese or Jiffy Cornbread it reminds us of that time, and we giggle. We did not have much money or niceties in life, but love and laughter are all that really matter in this world.
Jamie Nicolelli is a born-again Christian in the Colorado area. She has married and has 3 step-children added to her family and 4 step-grandchildren. God has blessed her many times over and is thankful for His great mercies.