Her Brother’s Forgiveness Was the Best Christmas Present

She still felt guilty about a childhood Christmas prank. But when she came clean, she experienced the true spirit of the holiday season.

Posted in , Oct 27, 2021

An illustration of an angel and devil beside a stocking; Illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Joe and I no longer lived in the same state, so we weren’t together for the holidays, but I made sure to give my little brother a call on Christmas Day. “The kids must be having a ball with their presents,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” said Joe. “Santa really came through.”

At the ages of four, three and one, Joe’s kids had no doubt it was Santa who’d brought those gifts. Joe and I had been that young once. In fact, I would never forget a certain Christmas when I was seven and Joe was five. I’d kept a secret about that Christmas for 20 years, and hearing Joe’s voice made me feel guilty about it all over again. He probably doesn’t even remember, I thought.

I heard my nieces’ voices in the background. “Sounds like you’ve got a little trouble,” I said.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. The girls have gotten old enough to start fighting with each other. Like we used to do.”

“We sure did.”

When we were kids, Joe and I loved nothing more than getting under each other’s skin. My little brother drove me nuts! If Mom brought home my favorite yogurt, Joe would make sure to eat it before I got a chance. When our parents gave us each our own basketball, Joe insisted on playing with mine instead of his own.

Then there was his behavior in the car. I would be sitting next to him in the back seat, minding my own business. Joe would wait until my parents weren’t paying attention, then he would lean over and smack me. The sound would make Mom or Dad turn around, and then Joe would start crying. “She hit me! She hit me!” And he always got away with it.

As an adult I could admit I gave as good as I got in our battles, but that one Christmas when I was seven, I was determined to get back at him—and that year, I had a secret weapon. I no longer believed in Santa, but I knew Joe did. I couldn’t abide him thinking Santa had put him on the “nice” list when I knew he’d been naughty all year, even if my parents had somehow missed it.

While Joe told me a funny story about his daughters’ latest squabble, I remembered slipping on my winter jacket all those years ago and sneaking over to our neighbor’s driveway. It was filled with rocks made from some kind of lava. To me they looked like coal. Surely they’d look like coal to Joe too. I stuffed handfuls into the pockets of my winter jacket, smuggled them up to my room and hid them under my bed. Then I waited.

Over the phone I could hear that Joe’s girls were now playing together happily in the background. “I guess all siblings fight,” said Joe. “It’s never really serious, right?”

“Right,” I said, but in my heart I wondered. God, should I finally come clean with my brother?

That long-ago Christmas morning when Joe and I looked in our stockings, I had been rewarded greatly. And rightfully so, I’d thought. My own angelic demeanor had been appropriately compensated with candy bars, bubble gum, flavored lip balms and an array of other glorious treats. But I could barely concentrate on them. That morning, unbeknownst to anyone, I’d woken up early, crept downstairs and stuffed the lava rocks into the red stocking with Joe’s name written in glue and sparkles. I watched Joe take down his bulging stocking, lay it on the living room floor and squint at what was inside. Joe’s smile froze, then faded. His cheeks turned candy cane red. He didn’t cry or complain. He stayed completely silent. He wouldn’t even look at anyone else in the room. As I watched, my own anticipation turning to something like regret, Joe set his whole stocking aside, hiding it so our parents wouldn’t see how “Santa” had judged him.

I’d never told anyone what I’d done. But my transgression nagged at me still, even all these years later.

“Hey, Joe,” I said. “Do you remember that Christmas morning when you were five and you got…in your stocking…I put…”

“Coal!” Joe said. “Of course I remember! Wow, you really got me that time, didn’t you.”

To my relief, my brother burst out laughing. “I was mortified!” he said. “I waited until everyone had left the room. Then I took the rocks outside. I didn’t want Mom and Dad to know I was naughty!”

“I guess if either of us deserved coal in a Christmas stocking that year it was me,” I said. It felt so good to say it, even if Joe never mentioned it after he’d put two and two together. I’d told myself a silly childhood prank wasn’t important enough to confess. But it turned out Joe’s forgiveness—even all these years later—was the best stocking present I could have wished for.

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