December has always been my favorite month. To me, it IS the most wonderful time of the year. I grew up understanding what the holiday season really means. I grew up believing in Santa and the magic of Christmas. When I was 3 years old, my mom started a tradition at my sister’s school called Secret Santa, where kids shop for their families. It was 1983, when I went shopping with her for the first time. My mom didn’t shop out of a catalog, she picked each item by hand. I don’t remember much that first year, except coming home with a little blue dog. For the next 35 years, shopping for others and helping children find the perfect gift for their loved ones was the start of this incredible month.

Ten years later, I got the greatest gift. All I wanted for Christmas that year was a day without pain. I had been living with chronic back pain for a month; it hurt to laugh, sneeze, move quickly, sit on the bus, sit in the car, and sleep in a bed. Everything I did caused me pain, pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I never knew where the pain would be, and I never knew how intense it was going to feel.

Our family tradition was to wake up Christmas morning, open presents, eat cookies, and drive two hours to see our grandparents. I loved Christmas. It was and continues to be my favorite time of the year, but I was not looking forward to this particular Christmas. It hurt to be in a car for just ten minutes, let alone two hours. The seats were uncomfortable, and each time the car went over a bump, I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my back. The only thing I prayed for was a day without pain. I didn’t care what Santa brought me; I was just tired of hurting.

Christmas morning, I woke up without pain. For the first time in a month, I could move freely. I could sit on the ground. I could twist and turn. I thanked God for the greatest gift I could have been given. I opened my presents with my family, ate cookies, and survived the two-hour drive to see my grandparents without pain. Christmas morning, I learned miracles do happen, and Christmas is truly a magical time.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the intense back pain I was feeling was caused by leukemia cells spreading throughout my bone marrow, and by the end of January, I would be diagnosed with leukemia.

Two years later, right before Christmas in 1996, I learned about Jon, a senior at my high school. We received a call to pray for him because he was in a coma due to undiagnosed leukemia. I asked my dad to take me to the hospital to talk to Jon. I didn’t personally know Jon, but my brother did as they were both drummers in the band. I brought a rosary I had been given and a St. Peregrine medal (the patron saint of cancer). When I got to the hospital, I met Jon’s father, who was crying. He kept saying, “I should have seen this coming. Why didn’t we know something was wrong?” I introduced myself, told him I was a leukemia survivor, and told him there was nothing he could have done. Leukemia has no standard symptoms. His father looked at me and said, “The doctors have been saying that, but I didn’t believe it until now.” He hugged me, and I went into Jon’s room. I pinned the medal to his pillow and laid the rosary down. I don’t remember what I said to Jon, but I know he heard it.

That day, I was given another unexpected gift. The gift of understanding why I was diagnosed with cancer in the first place and learning that what I had experienced had purpose. I was able to use my experience to help Jon’s dad. My experience helped me explain that leukemia has no set symptoms in a way he could hear it. I helped him understand that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it, which lifted the guilt from his shoulders. I was able to comfort him because of what I had gone through. Sometimes the gifts we give are simply gifts of understanding.

I have always believed in Santa, but as I have gotten older, I have come to realize that Santa isn’t just a jolly fat man dressed in red who delivers presents to all the children in the world. Santa is you and me, Santa is the kindness of a stranger, Santa is the joy you feel watching someone open the present you gave them. Santa is the joy and wonder this season brings.

One of my favorite memories is bringing that joy and wonder to the residents of the nursing homes I worked. Santa always attended our Christmas parties. Everyone always asked me who Santa was. My answer was simple; he is Santa Claus. No, seriously, who did you get to dress up as Santa, they would reply. Santa, I would tell them. Where is he from? they would ask. The north pole. Well, how did he get here? His reindeer and sleigh, I would quickly say. Where are his reindeer? Visiting their reindeer cousins at the Columbus Zoo. I had an answer for every question they asked, never disclosing who Santa was because I wanted the residents to believe he WAS Santa. It allowed me to give the gift of allowing my elderly residents to feel like kids again. To take pictures with him, reminisce about past Christmas’ and feel the wonder and excitement this time of year brings us.

December is a time of giving. A time to be there for someone else, to give gifts from the heart filled with love. Two of my favorite examples of this are from Secret Santa. A little girl bought her dad a toy shaving kit. When she was asked why she picked that specific gift, she replied it was the only one, so it must be one of a kind like her dad is. Or the time a little boy bought a sword for himself. When asked why, he replied I’m buying a sword for my brother, and he will need someone to play with.

I absolutely love their reasoning. Gifts that come from the heart at the best kind of gifts. Gifts don’t need to be expensive or big. Just smiling, holding the door open for someone, or being a listening ear can be gifts. As we get closer to Christmas Day, I ask that you think about the gifts you have been given that are special to you and what is one thing you can do for someone else to make their holiday season a bit brighter and filled with the wonder and joy the very first Christmas brought to the world.

Merry Christmas!

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