12/20/2018 12:04 EST | Updated 12/20/2018 15:19 EST

Saewan Koh Thought Christmas Was An Elaborate Ruse. Until His Wish Came True

"When I heard about this thing Christmas, and how children were given gifts...I really wanted to get in on it."

Saewan Koh, on the far right, with his three brothers apple picking in Mississauga, Ont.

HuffPost Canada

As the son of Korean immigrants, Saewan Koh's parents didn't celebrate Christmas, nor did they speak of it. His introduction to the holiday came at school in kindergarten.

"Kids talked about this dude, Santa, Christmas and the manger," Koh told HuffPost Canada. "We coloured pictures of the North Pole and baby Jesus. I didn't really get it the first year. I thought they were all undergoing some mass hallucination. The story was so well thought out, but if it were true, why didn't I know about it?"

His family had immigrated from South Korea in the late 1960s. Koh spent his early years in Vancouver, where his school would break each year for the holidays.

Growing up as one of four kids in his family with some financial constraints, Koh said he would watch ads for toys on TV and dismiss them as things other people had — an attitude that started to change with a growing cultural awareness of Christmas.

"When I heard about this thing Christmas, and how children all over the world were given gifts, I really wanted to get in on it. It was like, finally, there was this free pass to get toys. But for some reason it wasn't for me," he said.

The Koh brothers from left to right: Saehon Koh, Saejoon Koh, Sy Koh, Saewan Koh celebrating a birthday.

This is not an unfamiliar experience for immigrant children and children of immigrants who may not celebrate Christmas because of other cultural or religious affiliations, or even financial restrictions. But it is one that can leave children feeling embarrassed or alienated.

For Koh, he dealt with his embarrassment by making up stories about what he got for Christmas: some clothing, a few modest toys — to sound believable and not over the top, he said.

"Then I would deflect and ask what they got so I wouldn't have to feel weird. In general, I loathed the holidays. I enjoyed the time away from school, but I didn't like being different or the feeling that I was missing out."

Koh didn't ask his folks why Santa skipped their house until he turned eight.

"I started hounding my parents for Christmas presents. We weren't religious, I just wanted toys. At that time, I am not kidding, I didn't have any. So I used Christmas to lean on my parents for toys. 'All the other kids were given toys and other gifts, why should we be different?'" Koh questioned his parents.

He recalled showing his father an ad about the Toronto Star Secret Santa, asking him to apply. He can vividly remember the look of frustration on his dad's face. He was told once again, with four kids in the family, his parents just couldn't afford to shower them with gifts.

The Koh family at an apple orchard in Ontario.

The Great Christmas Fail

The year was 1973. Koh was eight years old. After years of complaining to his parents that he and his siblings were left out because they didn't have a "proper" Christmas, his dad announced that the family was in for a surprise on Christmas day.

With excitement, Koh and his siblings decorated a floor lamp, in lieu of a Christmas tree, and wrapped small items they already owned to populate the "gift scene."

On Christmas morning, they rushed to the "lamp tree" in anticipation of something great. They didn't see any gifts from their parents so they turned the house upside down, eventually locating a bundle in Christmas wrapping in a milk crate.

"I still remember holding it in amazement before taking it over to the the kitchen table," Koh said. "I tore open the wrapping and out plopped a 400g bag of Tootsie Rolls," he said emphatically. "The three of us stood there, our jaws and eyes wide open. Utter disbelief changed slowly into full on wailing grief."

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The Great Christmas Win

The following year, Koh's mother showed him a toy catalogue and told him to choose the toy he'd like for Christmas. His family had become more financially stable by that time, he said.

"I was so amazed, thrilled. If my mom said something was going to happen, it was totally going to. I picked a remote control corvette sports car," he said.

Weeks later on a cold winter morning, it was Christmas. Koh and his siblings ran to the "Christmas lamp" and there, underneath the decorations they had hung up, were Christmas gifts.

"They were wrapped up just like on TV. It was quite the thrill, I really can't explain how much fun that morning was," Koh said smiling. "I feel like my parents were so happy to see all of us happy, but I also feel like they were amused by the whole Christmas morning thing."

Three-year-old Koh (front, right) with his mother and brother in Vancouver in 1968.

After that year, Koh said that he and his siblings would always have at least one wrapped present under the lamp from his parents. And when the family moved to the suburbs, his parents bought an artificial tree and decorated it.

"After all the years of missing out, it was such sheer joy and exuberance to wake up on Christmas morning and tear into wrapped packages under a tree just like I had seen on TV and heard from everyone at school!" Koh said excitedly.

Wanting to celebrate Christmas wasn't as much about the material things, he said, but mostly about the desire to fit in.

"To me, this is now more a story about how my parents immigrated to a new country, worked as hard as they could just so we could celebrate Christmas just like others. I am now deeply grateful for both not having celebrated Christmas to celebrating it."

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