It’s around this time of year that I start to feel the guilt creep up. Guilt that maybe my kids won’t have as many gifts under the tree as they’d like. Guilt that we didn’t do as many Christmas activities as I had originally planned, because, let’s face it three kids and one mom with cold and snow and gloves that just won’t stay on don’t really mix that well. Guilt that I haven’t even attempted to buy—let alone bake—Christmas cookies for decorating. With all this swirling “guilt,” I saw this story online, and it was haulted. It reminded me of something I know I know, but easily forget. We all do.

Part of me feels like I have no business even writing about a story like this, that carries so much weight on its own, but the other part of me wants to pull out the thread of the story that weaves us all together. The story was of Santa, a.k.a. Eric Schmitt-Matzen from Tennessee getting called to Santa-duty in the hardest, most heartbreaking circumstance Santa could be in: the hospital room of a dying 5-year-old boy whose last wish was to see Santa. In the story originally reported by Sam Venable for News Sentinal, Schmitt-Matzen said when he got the call his response was that he’d be there. For an engineer by day turned seasonal Santa by December, that’s a tall, excruciatingly emotional order to fill and he could have easily said he couldn’t make it, but would pray for the family. He could have avoided the inevitable sadness all together, but he showed up because he had a job to do. And as that little boy died in his arms that night, this Santa really got it—the “true meaning of Christmas” that is and, really, the true meaning of humanness by giving the most meaningful present of all, his presence.

We do that a lot, right? Avoid sad situations, hard situations that ask too much of us so we turn our heads to pretend those things don’t happen. And now, during the Holidays and Christmastime, the hap-hap-happiest time of year, we just don’t want to get near the thought that this time of year is oftentimes the saddest, darkest, heartbreaking time for so many. This isn’t meant to add MORE guilt, God-forbid, no, it’s just something we’re not accustomed to, it doesn’t feel normal for most to jump into the sadness of others. But what if it was? What if we put on our own Santa hats even when it’s easier not to? What if, instead of worrying about how many more things we need to buy each other, we worried instead, “Have I been present enough? Can I be present even if it’s hard?”

When I held my husband’s hand as he took his last breath, there was nothing more that I could do but to be there. And even after his heart stopped and his hands were still warm, his presence filled the air, even if for just a moment, and all I could do was sit there and be there. My husband died the end of November and I entered the darkness of grief during the most “Wonderful time of year.” I could give nothing to my children, at least I felt like I had nothing to give. I accidentally killed the tiny Christmas tree that I hap-hazardly decorated. I could barely wrap a toy, let alone go out and shop for any. But every day there was a knock at my door and more and more gifts showed up at my door for my children and for me. Cards filled the mailbox. And on that Christmas day, when it took all I had to put on a smile and unwrap all the gifts by myself (my two year olds were fixated only on the first gift they opened and my newborn baby just slept the day away) I couldn’t tell you, honestly, what we received. I can’t remember, but what I do remember and will always remember is the presence that was behind every gift, every card. People who didn’t even know us who put on their Santa hats and showed up for my children and I. People who could have just said, “Oh, how sad, we’re praying for you,” and gone on their merry- Christmas-way, but they chose to get their hands messy, to somehow jump into my own sadness even if for a minute.

It’s been three years since that Christmas, and here I am fretting about not “getting my kids enough” even though I tell myself every year not to do that. But this Santa’s story broke me all over again, slapped me in the face and gave me my wake-up call, again. There was nothing Schmitt-Matzen could do for this little boy to save him, to make his mommy and daddy feel better about the situation, no words, no tangible gifts, dare-I-say, no prayers that could have made it more bearable, no, instead he just did his job, his job as one human to another. He didn’t know that little boy, nor his family, but he showed up and gave what he could, his presence to that little boy.

When I think about Christmas, I can’t help but to think about God and then when we hear of stories like Schmitt-Matzen’s and the little boy, we can’t help but to ask God “why?” And I’m reminded that all Jesus himself truly asked of those who were closest to him was their presence, even in the hard and sad and confusing times that made no sense. You see it throughout his 33 ish years of life; from jumping into a boat to ask fishermen to join him to asking Martha to just be present with her sister Mary and sit with him to requesting the presence of his closest friends as he prayed throughout the night before his death to all the way back to the beginning at his birth, beckoning lowly shepherds to be present. Nobody knew what their calling was, but they just answered the call. Schmitt-Matzen answered the call. And I, sifting through this Holiday Season that’s so happy and so sad all at the same time, have to answer my children’s call: they don’t know they don’t REALLY want gifts for Christmas, they want my presence. Do you remember every gift you ever got for Christmas? Probably not, but we are left with the gifts of the warm, happy presence our parents and family gave us or remember the pain of no presence at all.

This Christmas, can we answer the call, put on our Santa hats and give the present of presence to our children? Our family? Our friends? To total strangers? Not because our own presence in a situation makes us uncomfortable, but because our presence is needed to make someone else more comfortable, seen, heard and held. Even for a moment, the best gift of all is presence.


Nicole Hastings

Nicole is a is a widowed mom to three children. With a background in journalism and a sudden need to “figure out what to do,” she turned to writing about her experience with a husband with cancer, caregiving and widowed parenting and overcoming the aloneness of all of the above. She believes the art of storytelling brings people out of the dark into the light together to share in joy, humor, suffering and pain in life. She hopes that by sharing her story with transparency and heart will bring others hope and empower them to share their own stories.
Facebook: @JustAMomNicoleHastings