It was during the Christmas season of 1982 that we Kalvigs learned a very important lesson. The employees at the company where my father had worked were on strike, and had been for months. Back in those days, many women were still stay-at-home mothers, and my mother was no exception. Times were difficult, and my parents did the best they could. My father, when he wasn’t picketing, applied for various jobs while my mother did all that she could, while striving to make every penny work for our family of six.
My siblings and I were on the free lunch program at school, and we tried not to complain when Mom told us that Christmas would be meager, gift-wise, that year. I remember how tearful she was as she talked to my sister, Beth, and me.
“I’m not so worried about you girls, because you’re older and you know better,” she started. Her voice quivered as she finished, “but Sarah and Kenny are still little. They won’t understand why Santa didn’t come.”
We tried to reassure our mother that we’d do whatever possible to help in that regard, and although we were earnest with our words, our actions fumbled. Babysitting jobs were scarce, so we couldn’t earn money enough to buy anything for the little ones, let alone help our family. We felt defeated.
Mom had asked us to pray for Daddy to either find a new job, or, for the strike to end, and we obliged. That was one thing we could do. As Roman Catholics, we went to Mass every Sunday, and, twice a week with our grades at Immaculate Conception School. We knew that prayers were always answered by God, and we knew that He would help us if we asked for it.
In addition to Mass, Mom and Daddy participated in a special church group called Marriage Encounter. It is a non-denominational organization that holds weekend retreats for married couples, in an attempt to promote richer communication between spouses. Our parents had been going to these weekend retreats for a few years, and they proved to be helpful, in that they brought a special kind of peace to our family. They so enjoyed the retreats and the people they met at them, that they kept in contact and visited each other throughout the years.
On one night, when Mom and Daddy were hosting the Marriage Encounter people at our house, I overheard them talking about Daddy’s job, and how the people on strike seemed to think that they’d continue striking into the new year. It was a scary situation for us, and it seemed never-ending .
Mom kept telling us that we had to be big girls and that when there weren’t presents under the tree, we couldn’t fuss or cry. We said we understood, but it was difficult. We hoped for a miracle, while Mom told us that she might be able to buy Kenny and Sarah each a gift, and hoped that Beth and I would understand. We did, and told her as much.
Soon it was Christmas Eve. Each Christmas Eve, we went to the special late-afternoon children’s Christmas Mass at our church. After Mass, it was customary for us to go out to dinner. That year, however, we just went home and got ready for bed. Mom told us that we shouldn’t be sad, because we wouldn’t be this poor forever. We hoped she was right, and hoped that at least Kenny and Sarah would have a good Christmas morning.
I remember talking with Beth that Christmas Eve night. She and I had told Mom that we’d be okay, yet, we were sad that Dad was still on strike. We were sad that our parents were struggling to pay the bills, and, we were tired of eating poor people food like Treat and baked beans. We both prayed that night, as we had been doing all along, that the hardships would end soon.
In the morning, we awoke to find a brown Christmas.
“We can’t even afford a white Christmas,” Beth said.
We were getting our bathrobes on, and sat at the top of the stairs with Sarah and Kenny to wait. That’s what we did each Christmas morning, while Mom put on the Christmas records and Daddy made coffee. We didn’t wait as long as we had in the past, and Mom didn’t play Christmas records. Soon, though, she called us downstairs by saying, “Okay, kids.”
Kenny and Sarah sped down the stairs. Beth and I looked at each other and understood each other’s thoughts. We pitied the younger kids. They didn’t know there’d be no Christmas presents under the tree.
Yet, when we sat down on the floor by the Christmas tree, there was a good-sized present right there. It was bigger, and when Beth looked at the tag, she said, “It says ‘For the Kalvig children.'” I looked at Mom and wanted to ask her, “Is that really for all of us?” but before I could, there was a knock at the door.
Mom opened the door and in came two of their Marriage Encounter friends. Mr. and Mrs. Echelberry sat down at the table with Mom and Dad. Dad offered them coffee, and we watched him fill two mugs.
“Okay, kids,” Mom said. “You can open the present.”
I grabbed for the box. Mom scolded me and said, “Let Sarah and Kenny open it.” I knew she was right so I sat back and watched as the littlest members of our family slowly picked at the wrapping paper. The box was for an Atari 2600.
Beth shouted, “An Atari! An Atari!”
I looked at Mom, concerned.
“Is that what it is?” I asked her.
“Well, why don’t you open it up and see, ” Mrs. Echelberry said.
So, we did. Inside the Atari 2600 box was an Atari 2600. It was a real Atari 2600. The feel and smell of a brand new electronic gaming system made it tangible.
And, it was ours.
Then, I realized what had just happened. The tag said that the gift was from Santa Claus, but I knew it was Mr. and Mrs. Echelberry.
I looked at the couple. Their eyes beamed. They gave us a gift, as Santa Claus had done in years prior, but their gift to us was more spiritual to me.
It wasn’t that they bought us a gift, or that they wanted to do something good for someone else, though that was part of it. Their eyes beamed because they knew the spirit of Christmas. Though I didn’t realize it right away, their gift was so much more than a video game. They gave to my siblings, my parents and me, the spirit of Christmas.
The Echelberrys are now gone, but the spirit of Christmas lives on in my memories and my actions, and I will never, ever forget them, or that glorious Christmas.