Twelve months ago, I thought I knew what it was like to be a teacher living on a tight budget. Little did I know the year 2020 was about to prove me wrong.
In my home country, the COVID-19 crisis had some serious consequences for educators. Class hourly rates decreased, the number of groups per teacher was greatly reduced, and somehow, teaching from home felt like twice the amount of work compared to last year.
As a result, I had to sell my car along with some of my belongings while I spent several months looking for new job opportunities. My rent was due, unpaid fees from my daughter’s school were accumulating, and I was about to lose my mind trying to figure out a way to stay afloat.
And just when I had abandoned all hope, my wife and I managed to find a few extra teaching gigs in November. Additionally, I was able to earn additional revenue from writing and editing work which was used to pay off all of our most pressing and short-term debt.
Unfortunately, this maneuver left us broke again for the Holiday period. And even though I was convinced this would be a particularly gloomy Christmas for all of us, life proved me wrong again, as we were blessed with ten wonderful gifts which made the Christmas of an overwhelming year a memorable one.
1. A newly-found Christmas staple
(Our Nativity Scene — Photo by the author)
“You won’t believe what I’ve just stumbled upon here.”
“The Nativity Scene. It’s been under our very nose all this time.”
We spent a whole year looking for our nativity scene. And when I say that, I don’t mean we couldn’t find the perfect one. We literally couldn’t find ours, at home. It had been lost for a year and a half, and we thought it had been misplaced when we moved into this house.
A few days ago, as we were searching for a candlestick, my wife spotted it. The smiling, chubby-looking figures seemed happy to have been found. My daughter Giselle was overjoyed: she hated the idea of getting another nativity scene. In her heart, that was the only one for us.
2. A long-awaited appointment
“You guys are coming for Christmas, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, Dad. This pandemic thing makes me worry, especially for you and Mom. I don’t want to expose you.”
“We’ll all take the necessary precautions. Just come and visit.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I hadn’t been able to visit my parents during the entirety of the year. Living in a country where cases are on the rise and in which people generally have little regard for their own safety, my wife and I thought it safer to just stay home until the storm was over.
Deep in my heart, however, I knew I had to go and pay a visit. So this Christmas Eve, we traveled all the way down to my parents’, setting foot in their home for the first time in 2020. And even though it had been just one year, it felt like we hadn’t seen each other forever. We were all truly happy.
3. A brotherly rendezvous
(Pizza, the cat — Photo by the author' brother)
“This is ‘Pizza’. I found him back in Europe and decided to bring him with me.”
For the last four years, my younger brother has been away overseas, studying for a degree in programming and graphic design. Again, due to the growing threat of Coronavirus, he decided to come back and stay for good.
Seeing him was truly epic. Both of us older, heavier, and more mature, we had a chance to catch up, reminisce about the old times, and talk about future plans and projects, all while his pet cat, Pizza, wandered around. My parents are also relieved that he’s home after years of solitude and isolation. A true Christmas present for all of us.
4. A much-needed rest for the backbone
“You said your chair broke, right?”
“Here. Have this one.”
Being an educator during a pandemic means you have to spend a lot of time sitting — which is fine if you have a nice chair, but not so much when your only option is only a dining one.
For the last four months, after my beloved office seat broke, both my bottom and my back had been in constant pain. Unable to pay for a new one, I had to settle for one of my dining chairs, which are okay for sitting for a few minutes, but not for hours on end.
During our visit to my parents’, Dad gave me his own office chair, saying he didn’t use it anyway. I know he was lying, but I sure appreciate his love and generosity. Good old Dad.
5. A symbolic exchange
“Oh! Isn’t this nice!”
“Do you like it?”
“Are you kidding? I love it!”
Our presents reflected our meager budget. We got my father a beer holder with all sorts of nuts inside, and my mother received a case for her glasses. Much to our surprise and joy, they were truly happy with their presents.
In return, I received a nice purple shirt and a tie, my wife got a casual and perfectly-fitting top, and my daughter obtained a psychedelic-looking T-shirt. Oh! And we got a packet of green olives. All really simple gifts, but every single one of them highly appreciated.
6. A tasty mix of ingredients
“Okay, let’s see… what do we have to buy again?”
“Pita bread, mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, basil leaves, and olive oil.”
In a country where the customary Christmas dinner consists of heavily stuffed chicken sandwiches (they’re so big they put Subway to shame) a bunch of small Margherita pizzas sure was an odd yet economic choice. Happily, they turned out delicious, allowing us to eat to our hearts’ content several times over the last few days.
This shift in food choice, though far from traditional, served as a reminder that extravagant feasting isn’t everything there is to the holidays. My wife, daughter, and I had a great time preparing — and eating — those pizzas, and my girls even had a chance to experiment with the ingredients a little bit.
7. A perfectly-conceived gift trio
(The Famous Five, Spanish versions — Photo by the author)
“Hey, can you give me a hint on what Giselle might like as a gift?”
“The Famous Five, #8: Five Get into Trouble, by Enid Blyton.”
I’m glad my older brother asked because I was worried only one book in the collection wouldn’t cut it. You see, my daughter is an avid reader capable of finishing entire novels in one day. Once she’s opened a book, she simply disconnects from the rest of the world, completely ignoring what’s happening around her.
My wife and I got her the seventh novel, Five Go Off to Camp, whereas my sister-in-law and her boyfriend got her the ninth one, Five Fall into Adventure. Giselle was delighted to have the chance to read not one, but three new stories of her favorite franchise. Thrice the gift, triple the joy.
8. A resupplying of art equipment
(Giselle’s markers — Photo by the author)
“Time to open the next present… what could it be?”
“Oh my God! I’ve wanted these forever! Thank you!”
That’s when Giselle started crying. She got an imitation set of Copic Markers. Not that she minded they weren’t original. The mere idea of using the pens was a gift in itself. On top of that, she got a new sketchbook, a set of watercolor brushes, and a 2021 appointment book. Additionally, she inherited my old wooden easel.
It’s funny when you think about it: As a child, you wait a whole year for Christmas to come so you can get your hands on your highly-coveted gifts. As a grownup, you can’t wait for your kids to open your presents. The smile on their faces and the tears in their eyes are your rewards.
9. A resurgence of inspiration
“Despite the circumstances, it’s been a beautiful Christmas.”
“Agreed. Hey, maybe you should write about this.”
For several weeks, I’ve been having trouble coming up with ideas to write news stories. The unexpected success of this Christmas, however, sparked some inspiration and prompted me to double my efforts to be more productive as a writer.
As a result, I’ve written down a list of future stories to compose, being that the first of my new year resolutions: Drastically increasing my productivity and quality, and writing more personal essays.
10. A Gift from the Spirit
“Remember a year ago, when you were scared to go through all this?”
“Yes, but now I’m glad I did. I liked it and I think it was good and important.”
“Of course. We’re your parents. We’d never encourage you to do something that wasn’t good for you.”
Above all, I’m deeply thankful for Giselle’s Baptism and First Communion, both in December this year. As Christians, it meant the world for my wife and me to have our daughter participate in the initiation sacraments of our church.
It wasn’t easy for her, though. On top of her online school courses, she had to take an extra class in preparation for both rites. And although she found it a bit daunting at the beginning, she admitted to enjoying the journey. The way I see it, her Baptism and the Holy Communion were her final — and most important — Christmas presents.
It all felt like a true miracle. Just a couple of months before, I thought I was financially doomed. Then suddenly, we were presented with all the necessary opportunities we so desperately needed to stay afloat. And thankful as I was, I can now see that I’d failed to understand the most basic of my blessings.
In the end, I realized that, even when we were living on a tight budget, we were fortunate to have each other and to be in good health. Thousands have spent the Holiday season in a hospital bed, fighting for their lives, and many have lost the battle altogether.
I can relate to this. Three years ago, I almost spent Christmas in a public hospital because of a rare neurological disorder. The whole experience made me appreciate all those things I used to take for granted: Family, friends, and of course, health. And now that I’m married and I have a daughter, I understand, better than ever, that family is the best present life can offer.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!