My favorite Christmas memory is from the year I was ten. My parents, like most people who lived in our area, were having a rough time making ends meet. There were six of us living in a one-bedroom quadplex, with walls so thin my aunt and uncle, who lived upstairs, could hear the percolator making the morning coffee in our kitchen. Two of my younger brothers and I slept in the living room on rollaway beds, while the baby slept in my parent’s room.

We kids never knew how tough or scary things had become, and thought we had the coolest mom on the planet when she let us have popcorn for dinner. It never occurred to us it was the only thing in the house to eat, or that the custard and toast, we loved for breakfast, was served because it was cheap and went a long way.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Mom started dropping hints that we weren’t going to have much of a Christmas, and there was no way we could afford a tree.

Two weeks before Christmas, Dad brought home a sheet of plywood someone had given him. When we asked what it was for, we simply got a look that said he’d never tell and asking too many questions might be dangerous for one’s behind. Our curious ears listened to the sounds of sawing, hammering and the occasional curse, while speculating among ourselves what he might be building.

The day we got out of school for Christmas break my teacher, who had heard we weren’t able to get a tree, sent the one we’d made for our classroom home with me. It was a five-foot cardboard monstrosity that almost didn’t fit in our car, but once we got it home Mother put a few touches to it, and it looked quite nice sitting in our tiny living room.

Mom has always made Christmas Eve a special time, and that year was no exception. She had put tiny lights around the “tree”, and there was hot cocoa, and marshmallows roasted at the gas space heater. Mom read us Twas The Night Before Christmas and the Christmas story from Luke, then we sang carols to Dad’s version of guitar playing, before hanging our stockings. We always used Dad’s clean socks, and they were hung very carefully, because he needed them back.

Christmas morning arrived, and we raced to our stockings. One would have thought they were full of diamonds and gold the way we acted when we dumped the oranges and hazelnuts out of them, which of course, quickly became breakfast.

Dad slipped outside, and we finally found out what he’d been working on. The first thing he brought in was a rocking horse for the baby. He’d built it so the rowdy little devil couldn’t tip it over, even at his rowdiest. Next he brought in stilts for the two older boys. They were only six inches off the floor, but they became ten-foot tall every time they used them. I waited for my gift, and couldn’t imagine what he could have built me. Then he walked in with a dollhouse that was better than any I had seen in the stores, and I played with it until it fell apart, years later.

Dad found a job in Dallas that next year, and things got better for us. There were always nice gifts under the tree after that, but there are times when I long for oranges, hazel nuts, and homemade gifts.