I was born on Christmas Day as an only child, and destined to remain one.

My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, having no other outlet, inundated me with presents every Christmas–toy cars to ride in, red wagons, pearl-handled cap pistols, games that used batteries–an embarrassment of riches.

We lived in a working class neighborhood, one in which recently departed husbands and fathers were routinely eulogized with the phrase: “He was always a good provider.”

Other kids, my friends, would get two or three presents for Christmas (one of which would be a flannel shirt or something), some would get none, and I’d get this toy store.

Even as a child, that struck me as unfair. Yes, I know, life is unfair. But that doesn’t make it right. And surely this unfairness does not have to be rubbed in the faces of kids at Christmas.

But it is.

The Republicans spent most of the holiday season holding up an extension of unemployment benefits to desperate families in order to spare the well-to-do a modest tax increase. Bizarrely, nearly half of the American people sided with Republicans on the issue.

I must admit that even in a year of disappointing political surprises that one was a shocker.

It reminded me of Davy.

He was a patient–inmate, if you will–at a children’s psychiatric hospital I worked at while in college.

Far from being a snake pit, it was a fairly cheerful place, filled with boisterous, rowdy kids who, despite their various problems, did not seem to differ markedly from normal children.

Most of them were entirely likeable–some adorable–but Davy was at the other end of the spectrum.

He was convinced nobody loved him and, as it happened, he was right. There was nothing in particular to dislike about him; it was just that there was nothing to like, either.

I said the hospital was a cheerful place. Most of the time it was. Then there was Christmas.

The children were sent home for the holidays, all except those whose parents wouldn’t have them or couldn’t be trusted with even brief custody.

The hospital staff would spend Christmas Eve trying to lend false cheer to a joyless occasion for the few children left behind. It wasn’t a shift one volunteered for.

Davy’s parents, as I remember, had beaten him like a gong from the time he was an infant and didn’t want him home for the holidays anyway, so he was one of the three or four kids there to greet me as I walked into the locked ward on Christmas Eve.

He seemed happy enough. He entered into the games and songs of the evening with great enthusiasm. At bedtime, I was assigned the task of reading him his bedtime story.

Let me digress. This was an excellent, well-funded hospital, but somehow it never got around to providing proper stockings for the kids. The standard-issue socks were huge, long things with “Property of University Hospitals” stenciled on the side.

When I walked into Davy’s room he was crouched in a corner working on something. As I moved closer I could see it was a cardboard box, painted red with black lines drawn crudely across it. A fireplace.

Davy had been fastening one of the long, white hospital stockings on it as I came in. “I made it myself,” he said brightly.

Then he jumped into bed and waited for his story, confident Santa would slide down that cardboard chimney and fill his stocking with toys and candy.

And, miraculously, Santa did.

I don’t know exactly why that story occurs to me now, but I suppose it has something to do with the fact it can be seen as a metaphor of the times. The lucky few celebrate their gift-laden Christmases in the cocoon of their families, while others have to rely on the warmth afforded by a cardboard fireplace to get through the day.

It’s not fair.

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Donald Kaul

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.otherwords.org

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