Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "Christmas Spirit: A Collection of Inspiring, True Christmas Stories."
I was 6 that year, and all I wanted for Christmas was a kitty cat.
Not a pony. Not a Barbie. Not a bike.
A kitty cat.
Sometimes, even at the age of 6, there are things you want so much, so deeply, that you ache with longing for it. Well, for me, that Christmas, it was a kitty cat.
It wasn’t just cats I loved, though. Dogs fascinated me as well. I would have been happy with a puppy, too. I suppose I was an equal-opportunity pet coveter, when I stop to think about it. I was also pretty persistent. I asked, I pleaded, I cried. I threw temper tantrums. But Momma and Dad said no. They didn’t want a pet.
Momma and Dad kept an immaculate yard and house, and as Dad explained it, there was no way on God’s green earth he was going to have a pet — and definitely not a dog. In the first place, we didn’t have a fenced-in backyard, so where would we keep it? And who, he asked in an uncompromising tone, was going to clean up after this hypothetical dog? Not him.
Wait — was he talking about cleaning up after a puppy?
“I will!” I exclaimed passionately — until he explained exactly what it was I would be cleaning up.
Yecch. There and then I decided my best bet would be a kitten. At the very least, they were smaller than dogs and buried their own bathroom business. That was a big plus for me, and I figured it would be for Dad, too.
But the begging and pleading and tantrums were not the way to get what I wanted from Momma and Dad. I gave up.
For a while.
That year, I attended summer kindergarten and started first grade in September. Eventually, after Momma was sure I knew the way, I walked to school because it was only a handful of blocks from our home.
In no time, I was on a first-name basis with every dog and cat between our house and Bountiful Elementary. I experienced the uncontrollable urge of a young animal lover to follow every bark, yelp or meow to its point of origin. It was a miracle that I retained all 10 of my fingers. Considering how many times I poked them through chain-link fences and between wooden knotholes to be sniffed by a wet nose or to attempt to scratch the furry head of an unfamiliar dog with sharp teeth, I was pretty darn lucky.
Fall turned into winter, and the cold it brought meant that fewer of my animal buddies were waiting to greet me outside after school, and I was more interested in hurrying home to get warm.
But my passionate wish for a kitten didn’t grow cold. Rather than gamble and chance hearing an absolute-final-I-don’t-want-to-hear-about-it-again NO, I decided there was a better strategy conveniently looming on the horizon.
I would ask Santa Claus. Yep. The big man himself.
I also decided to play it smart. I would not ask Santa for a puppy (especially now that I had a clear idea of what that would involve). I would ask for a kitty cat.
I got busy and wrote my letter. I poured my heart into it. Made my case. Drew pictures. Since it would require a stamp and a trip to the post office, I then gave it to Momma.
“What did you tell Santa Claus you wanted for Christmas?” she asked me, smiling.
“A kitten!” I replied with an intensity that sprang from the very fiber of my being.
Her smile immediately fell, and her eyebrows drew together. Unfortunately, I knew that look. It didn’t bode well.
Crouching down, she gently informed me that, while Santa may want to give me a kitten, there were certain times of the year when momma cats had baby cats, and Santa might not be able to find enough of them for every child asking for one on Christmas.
My heart sank — but, she continued, Santa might be able to bring me a kitty cat of the plush toy variety. How would I feel about that?
Like a beggar grateful for crumbs.
We sent the letter, and I waited impatiently for Christmas to arrive. I hadn’t given up entirely on Santa coming through for me, but I was resigned to the idea that I may be receiving a toy kitty cat instead. I guessed I was OK with that. I knew a live kitty cat was a long shot at best, and I didn’t actually have any stuffed animals of my own.
Christmas Eve finally arrived. Momma made a fruit salad and got the turkey ready for roasting. We all made puffed rice balls, a tradition passed down by my dad’s pioneer ancestors, and played games. The magical anticipation of Christmas was thick in the air, along with the scent of pine and the aromas from the kitchen.
Finally, Dad said, “It’s bedtime.”
Most nights, I hated going to bed. Loathed it. Even at an early age, I was a night owl, wide awake when most children were fast asleep. It only made lying in bed in the dark, trying not to see the monsters lurking in the folds of my bedroom curtains, that much worse.
But on Christmas Eve, I was motivated to tough it out and eventually slept.
For a while.
The magical anticipation from earlier in the evening danced through my dreams, and I woke up long before dawn, like any typical kid at Christmastime.
I battled within myself for a few moments: I could either face the dreaded darkness and make my way to the living room to see what Santa had brought, or I could hide under the bedcovers so I couldn’t see the curtain monsters.
I took a deep breath, threw off the blankets and fled through the door.
Moonlight streamed through the windows, making the hallway less threatening. I tiptoed to the living room, pushed the door open just far enough to slip inside and flipped the switch that turned on the Christmas tree lights.
Oh! Santa Claus had been there, all right.
I quickly found the spot where old Saint Nick had left my filled Christmas stocking and presents. And lo and behold — there was a kitty cat!
A little plush kitty cat with orange-stripey fur, brownish eyes and a little brown bow. Heart racing, I picked it up — and then something else caught my eye.
There, sitting among my sister Debra’s presents from Santa, was another kitty cat, the same size as mine but with long, silky white fur, big sparkly blue eyes, and a blue bow to match. She was the glorious pampered princess of all kitty cats. Elegant and regal, with eyes like sapphires. I’d never imagined anything like her.
My kitty cat, in comparison, had short fur that now seemed fake and ratty and small, dull brownish eyes; it looked like some poor stray who’d been subjected to scavenging from trash cans.
In the space of a minute, its status dropped from treasured gift to raging disappointment.
It was so horribly unfair, I told myself, fighting kidlike despair. Debra didn’t even want a cat, hadn’t even mentioned the word "cat" to Santa, but she was the one getting this beautiful, dazzling tribute to feline perfection. I should have gotten the white kitty cat! Santa had made a mistake!
Santa had decided who got which cat, but Santa was long gone. No one else had awakened yet. I was the only one who knew he’d given Debra the beautiful white cat I now wanted. I was the only one who knew. Well, and Santa, of course.
If I switched the cats no one would know. Santa wasn’t exactly around to snitch on me to my parents. I could have the white kitty cat. She could be mine. Debra wouldn’t even care.
It would be so easy to do, and then I would have what I wanted more than anything else for Christmas.
Heart pounding in my throat, I did it. I made the switch. I put the orange kitty with Debra’s Christmas presents and the white one with mine. I turned off the Christmas tree lights, slipped out of the living room and fled back to bed before the curtain monsters could attack.
Then I tried to sleep.
But I couldn’t sleep.
I lay there, huddled under the blankets, trying not to think about curtain monsters but mostly feeling the lump in my stomach grow and grow.
Maybe Santa wouldn’t snitch on me to my parents, but I knew what I’d done was wrong. I’d forgotten about that when I’d been plotting to keep the white kitty cat. He wouldn’t snitch on me to my parents, either, but he was letting me know, right there while I was under the blankets, that he knew. And he was disappointed.
Now I battled a different dilemma: face the dreaded darkness again and return the kitty cats to their rightful places or hide under the bedcovers and ignore the curtain monsters and the awful feeling in my stomach.
Deep down, I knew what I had to do.
Taking another deep breath, I tossed the blankets off for the second time that night and dashed down the hall to the living room. It only took a moment to make the switch. I gave a last, longing look at the white kitty cat. I also made a last-ditch attempt at figuring out an honest way to end up with the white kitty. Maybe I could talk Debra into trading with me...
With that small fragment of hope, I left. Instead of returning to my own bed, I ran to my parents’ bedroom and snuggled in next to Momma. In a hushed whisper, I told her all about Santa bringing the kitty cats and the switch I’d made and how bad I’d felt and switching them back. I told her how much better I felt inside because I’d decided to do the right thing.
“That’s nice, dear,” she mumbled and then rolled over. I’m not sure she was even awake when I told her. But it didn’t matter. I felt such a rush of relief and peace that I instantly fell asleep myself.
I’d like to say that everything turned out rosy after that, but it didn’t. Debra didn’t care that she’d gotten the most beautiful kitty cat in the whole wide world, but she also didn’t want to trade it for the dumb orange one. Occasionally, she’d let me hold her cat while she counted to 100 — or 20 if I pestered her too much. She always counted way too fast, and we always ended up arguing about it.
Mostly, the white cat sat on top of her chest of drawers, just out of reach of my fingertips. In the end, I played with the orange kitty cat until its fur was missing in places and its sewn-on tail that I liked to wiggle back and forth burst its stitching and fell off. Momma sewed it back on once before the kitty ultimately went the way of all old toys.
But I have never forgotten, though many years have come and gone, how I felt making the wrong choice and then feeling the sweet peace of making it right.
I also understand that the real gift a little 6-year-old girl received that Christmas had nothing to do with Santa Claus or kitty cats. The real gift I’d been given was an exquisite and lifelong lesson about choosing the right.
Here are more Christmas experiences from Mormon authors:
Karen Tuft is the author of "Reality Check" and is also a wife, mother, pianist, composer and arranger.