In previous years, Christmas had been a grand event in our home. Money had always been scarce, but my parents scrimped and saved for the holidays.
My first memories are of bright lights, rich smells and a pile of gifts with my name on them. That year, however, would be different. My mother received a meager social security check each month that almost, but not quite, covered the bare essentials, with nothing left for the luxuries of Christmas.
I remember that most of our meals consisted of potatoes and the big blocks of American cheese that the government passed out at the Social Security office.
My mother, alone for the first time in her life, found it difficult to put aside her own hurts and fears and participate in the holidays. I do remember that we had a small tree and brought a box of decorations down from the closet shelf, but there wasn’t much joy in our home that year.
One thing that did worry my mother was that there was no money for gifts. She fretted over this for weeks but the funds just were not there for presents. One day, a neighbor told her about a local toy charity, an organization dedicated to providing donated presents for children in need. My mother applied for the program and visited their office, bringing home a small box of gifts, which she wrapped and hid under her bed.
The night before Christmas, we ate our baked potatoes, and Mom read to me from a book of children’s Christmas stories.
Just before bedtime, there was a knock at the door, and my mother answered to find a young woman who had just moved in next door to us. She was Hispanic, speaking very broken English, and had twin sons who were my own age. She was also divorced and was in as bad, or worse, financial straits as we were. She came to the door asking to borrow some flour and looked so exhausted that Mother invited her in and made her a cup of coffee. I was hustled off to bed (lest I still be up when Santa made his appearance) and they stayed up and talked awhile.
I remember my mother coming into my room and gently waking me up, then sitting on the side of my bed and asking me if I minded if we had company for Christmas. I said no, unused to have my opinion asked in such matters. Then she took my hand and asked if it would be all right with me if Santa gave some of my presents to the two little boys next door. I thought about this for a while, wondering why Santa couldn’t bring them their own presents, but somehow my young brain sensed that it would make mother happy, and she hadn’t seemed happy in a long while, so I hesitantly agreed.
Mother kissed my forehead, and I went back to sleep.
The next morning I awoke to the most wonderful smell wafting under my bedroom door. Hunger banished even the memory of Christmas from my mind, and I ran from my room to the kitchen to find the source of that glorious aroma.
I skidded to a stop as I rounded the corner into a strange dark-faced woman standing at my mother’s stove. She was rolling out tortillas and dropping them into a smoking pan, while our cast-iron skillet sizzled noisily on the back burner.
I blinked one or twice in confusion, until my mother walked in, then remembered that we had company, and even more importantly, that today was Christmas! I spun on my heels and ran into the living room to look under the tree. Two little Mexican boys sat, looking uncertainly around them, on our couch. Several small wrapped packages lay beneath the tree.
Mom followed me in and began to pass out presents, there were just enough for one gift each. I gazed longingly at the brightly wrapped packages in these stranger’s hands, knowing they should have been mine, clutching my solitary present tightly to my chest.
I unwrapped the box to find a GI Joe action figure, the old fashioned kind with the moving knees and elbows, the kind that came with a little rifle and a little backpack and a string that you pulled to make them say cool army things. Except mine didn’t have a rifle, or a backpack, and there was only a hole in the back where the string had once gone. I stood there in the middle of the living room, my lip trembling, clutching my broken toy.
I looked to see what the other boys had gotten, what gifts I had missed out on. One package revealed a cap pistol (without caps) and a worn plastic holster (I had a much nicer set in the toy box in my room), the second box revealed a plastic bag full of Legos, in various shapes and sizes. I stood there and watched these two boys whooping and laughing like these were the only toys they had, turning their meager gifts over and over in awe, and suddenly I realized, that these were the only toys they had.
Soon I would learn that these two, who would become my closest pals, each had exactly two shirts, two pairs of pants, and a worn sleeping bag that they shared on the floor of their room.
As I watched my mother talking to this strange woman in our kitchen, tears running down their cheeks, I was suddenly happy that she had woken me up, and that Santa had shared my presents with these boys, for how terrible would it have been to wake up with nothing under the tree, no presents to play with, no Santa at all?
The boys, Jay and Julio, followed me to my room, where I showed them, to their amazement, the wealth of my toy box. Soon we were playing like old friends, until called out for a breakfast of seasoned eggs and potatoes wrapped in fresh, warm tortillas. It was the best breakfast I could ever remember having.
I’ll never forget that morning, as I’ll never forget my friends from Mexico who taught me that there is always something to be thankful for, often much more than we think.
And that sometimes there is no greater gift than sharing a meal with a friend.
Plus, you’ll be helping us teach nutrition, shopping, and hands-on cooking classes to at-risk kids, in our MY KITCHEN Outreach Program.
(“A Second-Hand Christmas” by Perry P. Perkins. Originally published in Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas, 2007, and Sassee Magazine, Dec 1, 2009,)
Patatas y Huevos Tacos
Okay, so this is a little touched up from that Christmas breakfast, but even if you leave out the sausage, poblanos, and toppings, it’s pretty darn good!
1 lb bulk breakfast sausage
2 large russet potatos, sliced and seasoned (unpeeled)
1 large ancho chili, seeded and diced
2 Tbsp oil
1/2 tsp each: salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder
3 Tbsp milk
1 cup pico de gallo
1 cup Mexican Crema
1 cup cheddar cheese
10-12 50/50 tortillas, warmed
Brown tacos in a skillet with very little butter. Set aside and keep warm.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Take sausage out of casing and cook in a separate pan, breaking it up, until no longer pink.
Drain, and set aside.
Slice potatoes in thick matchsticks (can use a French-fry slicer.) Heat oil in an ovenproof skillet.
Place potatoes and diced poblano chili in a single layer in pan and cook potatoes until golden brown, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.
Beat together eggs, milk, and spices with a whisk.
Add egg and milk mixture to pan; heat until almost firm, folding once or twice with a wooden spoon.
Add sausage. When egg mixture is almost firm, add cheese, cover, place in oven and bake until eggs are firm and cheese melts.
Divide evenly between tortillas, topped with potatoes, and serve with pico and Crema.
Number of Servings: 6
NOTE: To take this recipe up another notch – substitute 8oz chorizo for half of the breakfast sausage. Just make sure to drain the meat before adding it to the potatoes.