As a young father (so you know this took place quite awhile ago) I believed my most important duty was to teach my children life lessons that would help them cope with the big cruel world. The lessons included shoe tying, hand washing, teeth brushing, etc.

After nearly 30 years of proudly answering to “dad,” I now possess the wisdom to realize my two kids probably taught me just as much as I ever taught them.

The year was 1988. My son had just turned 3 and my daughter was not yet a year old. 

I was not enjoying a particularly festive Christmas season, and I didn’t know why. I had watched my favorite Christmas specials on TV and listened to Christmas music non-stop.

No matter how deeply I immersed myself in the season, that magic feeling just wasn’t there for me.

Then I figured it out, or at least thought I did.

I looked under our artificial tree at a modest number of smartly wrapped presents. It was not what I wanted to see. I was their father, and I wanted to give them more.

I was working at Mercy in Dubuque at the time, and one of their employee benefits was Paid Time Off (PTO). If you built up more hours than you used in a year, it carried over, so it was possible to bank a good number of hours. Depending on your years of service, you could also sell your PTO hours back at a percentage of your hourly pay.

Cha-ching! I sold back 120 hours and, after banking the check, headed out to the stores. 

Barely looking at price tags, I began filling my cart with toys and games. I then hatched a plan for keeping it all a secret.

Their mother’s side of the family always celebrated Christmas Eve, so I wrapped all the packages at my parents’ house, gave them my house key and asked them to put all the packages under the tree while we were gone. All the tags read “From Santa.”

I left for my in-laws’ that night firmly believing I had unlocked my Christmas spirit.

After arriving and exchanging small talk, all the kids were more than eager to unwrap presents. When they were finally given the go-ahead, a mad dash to the living room ensued.

My daughter actually got stepped on, and I watched as nieces and nephews ripped open packages. They barely looked at what they had opened before looking for something else to tear into.

I felt just like Charlie Brown, believing that Christmas had become too commercial.

Then I noticed my son.

He picked up a package from his aunt, first taking the time to admire how it was wrapped. He began carefully unwrapping it as if he didn’t want the paper to rip.

It was a couple packages of tube socks.

Remembering how much I “enjoyed” getting clothing as Christmas presents, I was waiting for him to show little or no interest in them either.

I could not have been more wrong.

He hugged the packages to his little heart and had to show each of his aunts and uncles what he had gotten. It could have been a box of cow manure—he was just happy and appreciative that someone loved him enough to give him a gift.

At that moment I realized I had learned a lesson I would carry with me the rest of my life.

I’ve used that cherished memory often. Many times when I thought the Christmas season was not what it was meant to be, I think of a three-word phrase that grounds me and gives me a healthier perspective—“Remember the socks.”