Essay Ash Read on the Christmas Eve episode of "On Point"

December 29, 2013

Christmas at St. Agatha's
By Ashley Merryman

On Christmas Day, about four years ago, I arrived at the parish hall of my Los Angeles church, St. Agatha's, as the parish's annual dinner was already in full swing.

For about 30 years, St. Agatha's has fed homeless and needy families on Christmas – as many as 1600 to 2000 coming for dinner each year. Coming into the hall that year, it was, as always, a joyful, chaotic scene. The hall shimmered with twinkle lights; decorated trees were every where you looked. Volunteers in Santa hats rushed around, while, on a stage wrapped in gold, sat Santa on a throne, greeting an endless line of children. Elves grabbed gifts from a huge pile and handed one to each child as fast as they could manage.

But in the middle of this merry cacophony, an seven year-old girl stood, sobbing her eyes out. That special kind of little kid crying, when her entire body convulsed with each wail.

At first, I couldn't even decipher the girl's waterfall of tears – but eventually she calmed down enough to explain: "I got a present from Santa, but it was the wrong one. I prayed and prayed to Santa – and to Jesus – every day all month – I've been such a good girl, and I just wanted one thing – that's all – and I didn't get it." Then the crying resumed.

Her mother solemnly nodded, confirming her child's story. And I understood. I'd been tutoring kids at Saint Agatha's for 10 years: the poverty in the area cannot be underestimated. I knew of kids failing school because they didn't have pencils to do their homework with. So I knew that whatever the girl had gotten at the Santa line, would be the only present she'd receive that Christmas.

The child was keening as if someone had died. But I could see from the look on her face that something was dying. Her childhood – right then and there. The seven-year-old was learning that you can believe and pray, but, in the end, it didn't matter. You could be such a good girl, but no one cared – not even Santa. Life was unfair and full of disappointments: this was just the first of many she'd face. And the shock of all this was too much for the little girl to bear. She was hysterical.

"What did you want?"

It just flew out of my mouth before I could even stop it. To my dying day, I have no idea why I asked. My heart was pounding: I'd made a huge mistake. What if she wanted an iPhone or a pony? Or a bike? Or a car or a treehouse or diamonds? She was being raised by a single mom – what if she'd asked for a daddy? The possibilities were endless. Odds were there was nothing I could do but say, "Wow, Honey, I'm sorry."

"A white – waaaa – boar–."

"What?" I couldn't believe my ears. She didn't just say a "white board" – no – no – that would be impossible. No kid would have asked for that.

She slowed the spigot of tears to talk. "A white board. The thing with markers that you write on? I love to write, and I wanted a white board to practice words for school –" then she blubbered once more.

I forced myself to speak as calmly as possible.

"Well, Sweetie, you know I've been telling you to come to Tutoring." (In truth, I didn't know if I'd ever said this to her.) "When we had the Tutoring Christmas party on Thursday, Santa came, and he thought you'd be there, so he brought your real present then. But you weren't, Santa asked me to keep it for you. It's in my car."

After a confused nod from her mom, I took the still-weeping child to the parking lot – and my car just outside the hall.

"Merry Christmas!" I sang out as pop went the trunk. And out from it, I produced a white board. And not just any one, either. It was brand-new, four-foot long, and shaped like a surfboard. It was colored hot pink, complete with flower-shaped magnets, and ink markers galore.

For a second, we both sort of gaped. The one thing in the entire world she wanted, and there, a better version of it than she could dream of, there it was, sitting in the trunk of my car.

Yes, eventually, she'd learn that things didn't always work out. That disappointment was a fact of life. Some day.

But not that day. That was a day to learn that magic and miracles happen. That you do have to have faith, and be a good girl, because prayers can come true. There is a such a thing as a happy ending.

In fact, on that day, I learned that lesson, too.