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The first time I understood that some kids in the world didn't get any Christmas presents was the year Santa brought me an electric train.

I was out of my mind with joy. The whistle blew and the smokestack produced actual smoke. Other than dynamite or an alligator, what Christmas gift could possibly have been better?

It was my mother who cast a damper on things. She saw how much I liked the train and asked if I would be willing to part with it for the sake of sharing. We could send the train to some unfortunate child in Red China or Africa.

Mom: "Some boys don't get any Christmas presents at all."

Me: "OK, they can have the socks I got from Nana."

That's when the old man said it would be more in the spirit of "peace on Earth" to keep the train and send me to a tribe of Christmas-less cannibals.

Sending my train to another kid may have only been a test — with my mother it was never possible to be sure — but I wasn't having any of this charity crap. The train was mine. I'd earned it by holding back some major evil since last Christmas.

Besides, it wasn't my fault that some kids didn't get any presents. Maybe they hadn't been good. If they had been, then it was Santa's fault for not rewarding them. Why should his incompetence come off my end?

I kept the train, but the thought stayed with me. It was hard work being good in order to get something. How was it possible that there were good kids in the world who didn't get anything for Christmas? Where was the fairness in that?

Note: Keep in mind that this was before I learned the true meaning of Christmas: gluttonous merchandising. Some kids didn't get presents because they were poor, or Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.

Charity is a huge pain in the butt. That's the thought that would creep into my young head whenever I played with my electric train.

I would be gluing an unfortunate bug to the tracks and the thought would pop into my selfish head: "Some kid like me in China has to step on bugs because he doesn't have an electric train to run over them. That's just sad."

I still didn't give up the train. In fact, I kept it for years. But that's the Christmas I started thinking about other kids — kids who had been good and didn't get anything for their trouble.

It made me feel guilty. The next year I spent part of my own allowance to buy a small toy and put it in the charity box at school.

I waited to feel better about myself. I had risked my neck filching the "allowance" from the old man's bureau in order to get something for a kid I didn't know. Didn't that qualify as charity? Didn't I deserve to enjoy my gifts without guilt?

Nope. It took a long time for me to realize that charity isn't about making ourselves less guilty. It's about understanding we're part of something larger and more important than just ourselves.

All of this came back to me last week as my wife and I shopped for someone else's Christmas. As part of a church program, we bought presents for anonymous children.

Wednesday morning we'll watch our grandkids tear into the magic of Christmas. Just as magical for us will be the unheard laughter of happy grandchildren we'll never meet.

Robert Kirby can be reached at or