"Christmas has always been a very special day for as long back as I can remember," Ronald Reagan once wrote in a letter. "Maybe this was due to my mother and her joyous spirit about the day."
Although President Reagan could have spent his White House Christmases with family at his beloved ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., he instead stayed in Washington, D.C. His sacrifice allowed Secret Service agents and other aides to spend Christmas at home with their families. He was a thoughtful person.
Reagan grew up in a desperately poor family. His father was a shoe sales clerk who had trouble keeping a job, partly because he was an alcoholic. "There were very few decorated trees in the years of my growing up. But never defeated, my mother would with ribbon and crepe paper decorate a table or create a cardboard fireplace out of a packing box. And she always remembered whose birthday it was and made sure we knew the meaning of Christmas."
His mother Nelle was an optimistic Christian woman who always looked for the positive side in every situation. President Reagan explained, no matter how bad things were for their family, his mother was always finding someone worse off than them. Reagan's most vivid early memory of his mother was of her with a covered dish taking it to a needy family. Nelle was always helping others.
Perhaps those lean years are one reason why Ronald Reagan once said a particular Christmas gift was especially memorable for him. It was his favorite gift and it came from his brother Neil. He called it "a gift truly in keeping with the spirit of the day." Neil had been struggling to find a suitable gift for his brother; they both were middle-aged adults and both men had successful careers.
Neil solved his dilemma by writing a letter. In the letter, Neil told his brother he had found a truly needy family with small children "who wouldn't go to bed with dreams of Santa Claus in their head." Ronald Reagan recounted how his brother Neil changed that and "became Santa himself, providing a Christmas from tree to turkey plus toys and gifts for all." Included in Neil's letter was a very detailed blow-by-blow account describing the "joy of the children and the grateful happiness of their mother."
This act of charitable giving by Neil reads like the end of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and became President Reagan's most unforgettable Christmas gift. He called it "a gift that will never grow old," as he would re-read the letter or think about the family's reaction to Neil's generosity.
Helping and serving others gives true joy and happiness, not only to the recipient but even more so to the giver. Maybe Neil's gift was particularly touching to Reagan because he knew what it was like to go without.