I sat wide-eyed and breathless listening to my best friend Lisa carefully explain the miracle of Santa Claus, a jolly old man with a white fluffy beard and a magical sleigh led by reindeer. Every Christmas, she told me, he would fly around the world granting the wishes of well-behaved boys and girls. How could we not have heard of this magical man in Indonesia? I wondered, barely containing my excitement. Indonesia is probably too hot for his reindeer, my seven-year-old mind reasoned.
I had just immigrated to Australia from Indonesia and couldn’t wait to experience the miracle of Santa. I had been miserable since the move following my parents’ bitter divorce. I missed my mother, who had left, and I missed my dad, who was still based in Indonesia, leaving me with strict Chinese grandparents who believed abusive behavior was an acceptable form of “tough love.” I missed my cousins and friends. I missed Indonesian food. I missed home.
I hung on every word from Lisa as she unveiled the secret of Santa. Finally! Something I liked about this odd new world! I learned that any child could receive a visit from him—along with the toys they wanted—by writing a letter to him about how good they had been.
I raced home that afternoon to immediately begin working on my letter. It would take time as every word needed to be perfect. I wrote late into the evening, neatly listing my achievements and good grades—all “A’s” except for one “B” in spelling. (I was still struggling with my new language.) I carefully detailed how I helped my grandparents and how I always did my best to behave. Wait till Santa gets my letter, I thought. Once he sees how good and hardworking I’ve been, he will surely grant me my one toy request: A Cabbage Patch doll.
On Christmas Eve, I carefully cleared a spot for Santa on our small balcony. With no chimney on the roof of our modest third-floor apartment, he would need a different place to land and enter. I left a bowl of water for his reindeer, in case they would be thirsty. I pulled up a chair against the wall near the balcony doors, where I placed my letter, tucked in an envelope with stickers of smiley faces. I propped it up just-so, ensuring he would see it. After I was done, I stepped back to admire my work. It was the perfect first hello from me to Santa.
The next morning, I woke with a jolt, surprised I had managed to fall asleep. I tossed back the covers and dashed down the hall, my heart racing with excitement. I ran to the spot I had cleared for Santa, giggling with delight. But… nothing had changed. The bowl of water and my handwritten letter was still there, all untouched. The smiley faces on the envelope now seemed to be laughing at me. What happened? Did Santa forget me? How was that possible? He is all-knowing and loving. And he always managed to visit all the other children. Did I do something wrong?
I sat heartbroken on the floor reading my letter to Santa with a lump in my throat as I looked for clues. Where did I go wrong? And then, it struck me. The “B!” It was the B I had gotten in spelling! I was still learning the English language but that was no excuse. I needed to do better! Wow, Santa really does know everything!
The next year, I was determined to work and study even harder. I scored a hundred percent on every math test. I was extra kind to everyone, especially the teacher (she probably shared our report cards with Santa). I did all the chores my grandparents asked, immediately. Best of all, I eliminated the errant “B” on my report card, getting straight “A’s”! I couldn’t wait to get my Cabbage Patch doll! I could see Santa gleefully placing my doll in his toy sack. I wondered what color hair and eyes she would have. It didn’t matter; I would love her regardless.
The night before Christmas, I repeated my routine, making room on the balcony, setting out a bowl of water for the reindeer, and propping up my envelope, this time with stickers of elves for extra brownie points. The next morning, I once again jolted out of bed, dashed down the hall and ran to the spot to greet my doll. But… nothing. Again! My letter sat unopened, the water undisturbed, and not a single gift. My legs buckled as I slumped to the floor. I had been such a good girl! The empty space around my letter reflected the deep void I felt in my heart. I was crushed, confused and… done. Santa did not believe in me, so I would not believe in him. I would never write to that cruel and unfair man again. Even if he gave me a doll, I would throw it back at his fat face! He was not magical—he was mean.
From that moment on, Christmas was no longer a time of joyous hope, but a stark reminder of how I was different from and perhaps inferior to others. Anytime a kid at school talked about the presents they received from Santa, it felt like a bandage ripped off my still-healing heart, the heaviness weighing on me like a slab of stone from a Roman ruin—part of the past but no less heavy or real.
Like all children, I eventually learned the truth about Santa. While it was devastating news for the other kids, it provided an explanation and some relief for me. But the damage had already been done. His painful absence, on top of that of my parents, was my emotional tipping point. Rather than providing a flicker of light at the end of a dark and dreary tunnel, Santa slammed it shut. I was determined to never again believe in miracles or wonder. And “hope” was as phony as Santa himself, a fairytale that ultimately gives way to the sad reality. There was no deeper meaning beyond our mere existence. Life was bleak.
My negative association toward Christmas lasted well into early adulthood. There were rare occasions when I would find myself enjoying the holidays, but an inner voice would gradually creep in from a well of darkness where the wounded child resides, whispering, “Don’t get too happy. You will only be disappointed.” I would want to leave the celebration, crawl into bed, and pull the covers over my head, just as that crestfallen little girl had done so many years ago. It was a victorious battle when I stayed.
Then one Christmas everything changed. A dear college friend of mine, Kym, was going through a difficult time and needed my help. Her parents were in the middle of a divorce and it would be Kym’s first holiday with a broken family that was once inseparable. She had grown up in the loving and supportive family I had always admired and wished for, but it had come at a cost. It had left her unprepared and unable to cope with challenges that exists outside of that comforting cocoon, let alone the sorrow and suffering that its end can bring. On the other hand, I was all too familiar with the feelings of loss, grief, sadness and resentment—along with the well-worn path toward healing. I could help her.
As I sat consoling her, words poured out like a soothing lotion healing the blistering emotions she felt. Suddenly, it occurred to me. The emotional suffering that I had endured for so many years, was the very thing that now enabled me to ease the sorrow and suffering of a friend. I was overwhelmed by the revelation. Not only did light now shine in my once dark tunnel, its illumination had transformed the tunnel itself into a healing bridge.
For years, I was consumed with sadness and despair, believing Santa—the Universe, Life, God—had betrayed me, providing no gifts or miracles in any form. But in fact I had been given the greatest gifts of all: resilience, inner strength, empathy, and compassion. While I ached so desperately for a fairytale miracle on the outside, I failed to see the unfolding miracle within: an emotional alchemy that can transform disappointment and suffering into kindness and wisdom—a gift more precious than gold or any popular doll.
Rather than wallowing in self-pity and resentment about my childhood, I suddenly felt gratitude for every disappointment. For without them, I would never have been able to help my friend, nor the many others who so often need understanding and guidance through difficult times when all seems lost.
This wondrous outlook, born out of compassion and care, allowed me to cross a bridge from sorrow to strength, from helplessness to transformation, a miraculous bridge that exists within all of us. And at any time, we can choose to take that bridge.
It’s not about how we celebrate Christmas or any other holiday. It’s about knowing that within you is a world full of wonder, as enchanting as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or any other mythical figures.
Remember this and you give yourself (and others) a gift that outshines anything Santa could possibly deliver: the realization that You are the miracle.