It was a magical Christmas that year long ago, when our wide-eyed, pajama-clad toddlers were captivated by their first encounter with Santa--a.k.a. my husband, Pat. Five years later we seemed to be having a less than magical Christmas. Our three oldest sons, Michael, 11, Matthew, 10, and Kevin, almost 9, were much too sophisticated to believe in Santa Claus--though they tried to keep up the pretense for their little sister, Patsy, and two younger brothers, Darin and Brady. Early in November, television commercials started promoting the latest greatest toys, and Christmas catalogues found their way to our mailbox. The children pored over the pages, coveting the toys.

What began as a simple letter to Santa soon became a long list of advertised products complete with explanations of desired features. Their wish lists sounded more like demands. Every day we were bombarded with a repetitive chorus of what they wanted for Christmas. "I want a Star Wars Millennium Falcon!" "I want a G.I. Joe action figure!" "I want a Hess truck with the motor that whirs and lights that blink!" "I want a Hess truck, too, and a doll with real tears!"

"You want, you want!" I exclaimed in frustration. "Well, we don't want to hear it anymore!" Pat and I decided we had to take drastic action to bring their focus back to the real spirit of Christmas. We gathered the children together in the kitchen, and Pat made the announcement. "Because of the way you have been behaving, Santa will not be coming to our house this year!" There was silence.

For a few moments they just stared in disbelief. Finally, in a voice sounding very close to tears, Darin asked, "You mean we aren't going to have any Christmas?"

"Oh yes, we are going to have Christmas," we explained, "and it will be a very special Christmas. This year we're going celebrate the real meaning of Christmas, not by getting presents but by giving presents to some people who are not as fortunate as you are." Come Christmas morning, our gaily decorated tree stood in its corner, but instead of the usual presents there was only the small crèche--the stable with the tiny figures of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus--standing alone and prominent under the tree.

We went to church together, then came home and enjoyed a quiet, but festive family Christmas dinner. Then we cleared the dining room table and laid out piles of candies, dried fruits, personal-size bottles of shaving cream, lotions, colognes, and lots of bright Christmas wrapping paper and ribbons. We had contacted a nursing home and learned that there would be 26 residents on Christmas Day without any families to visit them. The director assured us that the children would be welcome.

We all worked together assembling packages. Christmas music played softly on the stereo, a log crackled in the fireplace, and large white snowflakes began drifting past the windows. The children's enthusiasm grew--as did their questions.

"Why are these people in a nursing home? Don't they have any families? Why can't their families take care of them?"

It was nearly dark by the time we finished wrapping, and we realized that the snow was piling up on the ground outside. We quickly arranged the presents in baskets, bundled the children in warm clothes, and piled into the car.

By the time we reached the nursing home, most of the residents had retired to their rooms, so the children delivered their gifts to each room, taking time to talk and visit.

On the way home they were so excited they all started talking at once. "Mom, they really liked the gifts!" "They kept thanking us for the presents and thanking us for coming!" "One lady said we were like her grandchildren but they live in California and she never gets to see them!" "Mom, one man said that we gave him the best Christmas he ever had!" It was an experience they never forgot!

We didn't do away with the idea of presents altogether. Since the children were so good about our alternative Christmas, we surprised them with gifts on January 6--the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the three wise men.

The following year, we decided to build on the children's new-found spirit of giving. We told them that instead of presents from Santa, their gifts would come from each other, and gave them the opportunity to earn money for gifts by doing extra chores in the house. It was amazing to see the industry with which they scrubbed floors, swept stairs, shoveled snow and kept asking for more work as they counted their earnings. Then came the fun part: shopping for just the right gifts. They pored over catalogs again, but this time they weren't looking for themselves.

This year they were thinking about what their brother or sister might want. Of course, there were the normal "dropping of hints" and pointing out toys they each "would really love to have." But, instead of the repetitive chorus of "I want, I want," we heard, "Wait till Patsy sees what I got for her!" "I found just what Matthew really wants!" "Brady's going to love the present I'm giving him!"

What a wonderful thing it was to see them so much more excited about what they were giving rather than what they were getting! They even had presents for me, and I saw the true joy of the spirit of Christmas in their eyes as they looked up at me saying, "Do you like it, Mom? Do you really like it?"

Our children are all adults now. They have their own lives, and some are starting their own families. Yet they continue to find ways to share their gifts and their time with people who are less fortunate. In the last few years, Christmas has included buying books for an inner-city school, helping a single mom buy toys for her children, adopting a child in Africa, and spending Christmas Day playing basketball with young teenagers confined to an institution.

Even though we all live in different corners of the country, we still come together each year to celebrate Christmas. We gather around the tree, and one by one the gifts are presented--some as elaborate as a computer, some as humble as a homemade card and a hug--all accepted with the same wonderful appreciation. And each year I again see the joyful magic and spirit of Christmas alive in their eyes as they present their gifts to me and ask, "Do you like it, Mom? Do you really like it?"

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