For all the good things about it, Christmas also has a way of highlighting sorrow and remorse. Some of the best Christmas stories, like Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," mix sadness with the morals they illustrate.
It was not your normal Christmas story, the one my mother told. No moral at the end. In fact, no ending at all but an unanswered question. Only when the mystery was solved, many years after I first heard the story, could I see meaning to it. But I'd always recognized the hurt. I'd heard her tell it many times over the years, and the pain was always evident, decades after the Christmas she remembered so well.
Her father, a poor, hardworking dirt farmer, had gone to town on Christmas eve to purchase gifts. My mother, the youngest of a large family, got a major share of his attention, so he was well aware that she yearned for a doll for Christmas.
Unfortunately my grandfather, though able to resist for long periods, was unable this time to control his thirst for alcohol. When he made his way home during the night, quite drunk, there were no gifts. When my mother awoke on Christmas morning, there was no doll. She was heartbroken. He was overcome with remorse. He walked back to town and somehow got someone to unlock a store and sell him their best doll. Back home before dark, he presented his child the treasure.
She could describe it to us many years later in loving detail, especially emphasizing the beautiful, life-like eyes that closed when she put the doll to bed. It was hard to tear herself away when she finally tucked her doll in for the night, watched its blue eyes close, and then went to sleep herself.
Next morning, she hurried to wake her baby. Imagine her horror when she was met with the sight of an eyeless creature in its doll bed. The doll's eyes had fallen back inside its head. My mother was inconsolable. To have had no gift for Christmas, then to experience the miracle of the doll, had made it the best Christmas she'd ever had. And to have it all snatched away, leaving an ugly, eyeless thing where the glowing, life-like doll had been at bedtime, seemed beyond bearing. The doll could not be repaired. And there was no possibility of a replacement.
Seventy years after the fact, my mother would still grieve over the doll and wonder what defect in its construction could have caused such an unexpected catastrophe. When most of her siblings had died, she would mention various ones of them and tell amusing family stories, but the story of the doll was never amusing in any way.
Eventually only my mother and her next older sister remained of the once large family. The two had always been exceptionally close and, approaching their nineties, they still visited when they could. I happened to phone my mother one day when her sister had just departed after visiting her. My mother was angry and hurt when I called. As she and her sister had reminisced, my mother had once again recounted the story of the doll and wondered how such a sad thing could have happened. "Oh, I did that," my aunt told her. "I was very jealous because you got the doll, and I punched its eyes out that night."
Thinking it over, I could finally see a point to the story. Maybe more than one. Bad decisions (my grandfather's in this case) can trigger consequences that ricochet through innocent lives for decades. My aunt's jealous resentment, understandable in a child, resulted in great pain for my mother and no doubt severe guilt for my aunt for all those years. And it left me with a philosophical conundrum: When is it better to admit guilt and shed a burden, and when is it better to suffer your guilt in silence and in secret?
Surprisingly, the two sisters managed to overcome what could have been a permanent rupture. They remained close for the rest of their lives. So maybe the Christmas spirit works its wonders even 80 years later.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."