12/20/2011 08:37 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2012

A Toddler Christmas

My four-year-old daughter, Elana, is beginning to understand giving and, more importantly to her, receiving. December is a magical month for her, filled with Hanukkah, Christmas, parties and presents. It's a time when Daddy doesn't go to work, and we visit grandparents. Since we live in San Francisco and they live on the east coast, it's also the one time of year we see snow.

I vividly remember the Christmas I was Elana's age. My brother Sam and I lived with our mom in a duplex in a small, depressed, rural Oregon town. Our parents had been somewhat bitterly divorced for a few years, and my mom, who had just earned her certificate at a local college, was a first-year teacher in a very deprived Native American town nearby. Our savings account was empty, and my mom was struggling to get off welfare. My brother and I knew that we had less money than our friends at preschool, and we prepared ourselves not to see much under the tree on Christmas morning.

On Christmas Eve, my mom, Sam and I gathered near the tree to sing carols, eat cookies and open one present each. The living room was sparsely furnished: a couch, chair, coffee table and a lamp or two casting a dim light on the tender family moment. I also remember an impressive tree, standing higher than my mom. The tree was decorated with lights, tinsel, ornaments and candy canes, and was as close to perfection as a toddler could imagine. That night, I opened a present from my Aunt Chris. Although I can't picture the exact toy, I distinctly recall the aroma of Strawberry Shortcake lingering on my pudgy fingers long after I went to bed. My brother and I went to bed, excited about our new toys, and even more eager to unwrap the few remaining presents in the morning.

That night, I lay in bed listening for Santa, knowing that he was a very busy man and might not make it to our house. Still, I listened for footsteps on the roof and a jolly old man crashing through the chimney (which we didn't have). I imagined his sled skidding to a stop on our rain-covered roof and the reindeer stomping their hooves while Santa completed his duties.

The next morning, Sam and I awoke at dawn to find the cookies we left for Santa and the carrots we left for his reindeer appropriately missing. Under the tree lay a large bag, bigger than anything I could have imagined, filled with toys. The toys weren't wrapped, and they weren't fancy. I remember dolls, cars, trains and blocks--the kind of toys one imagines Santa's elves creating at the North Pole. Santa had come, and he had left his whole sack! We looked to our mom in disbelief. "Mom," we whispered, "Santa forgot his sack. Now the other kids won't have any toys!" After a few moments of reassurance, Sam and I dug into the bag with an energy only a child can muster at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning.

Nearly thirty years later, my mom still won't tell me how that sack found its way under our tree. Maybe I don't really want to know; it lets me believe, if not in Santa, in the kindness of family, friends and possibly even strangers.

My kids will never get that kind of holiday. They live in a world without need or want. They have both parents in one house and a mom who spends most of her waking hours taking care of their every need. And I worry that they may never know that kind of pure magic, that kind of belief in the unknown.

I married into a Jewish family, so we celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday that brings not one, not two, but eight nights of presents! Although many of those gifts are the practical type (socks and pajamas), it's still a lot of getting. To lessen the load, my husband and I decided to make the sixth night of Hanukkah a night for charity. Elana is beginning to understand. "So, instead of getting a toy, I'm giving money to someone without a lot of princesses?" She thinks it's nice in theory, and likes the smiles and gratitude she receives when she donates. Still, she enthusiastically awaits the seventh night. "Tonight we get a present, right?"

Last year, after eight nights of Hanukkah, my daughters felt pretty confident that they will open a present every day for the rest of their lives. Each morning, when I dropped Elana at preschool, she asked hopefully, "Do I get a gift today?" I was starting to feel a bit dismayed, especially since Christmas with my family was rapidly approaching. Then a few days ago, I saw Elana counting the change in her piggy bank. When I asked her what she was saving her money for, she replied, "When it gets really full, I'm going to give it to the poor people who don't have food, or clothes, or toys, or a house, or fancy dresses."

I was about to cry -- that is, until she whacked her sister for trying to swipe a nickel, and I had to send her to her room for a time-out.