By Maria Archangelo

My mother grew up in a Philadelphia rowhouse where men were irrelevant. The shooting death of her father - a rookie policeman killed in the line of duty in 1933 - left her mother alone to raise three girls. To help them survive, two maiden aunts moved in.

Fanny and Ella were tough and stern. In a tintype, Aunt Ella looks like the mean neighbor who turns into the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Already old when they moved in, these ladies took care of the girls while my grandmother went out to work.

For my grandmother, the transition was stressful but also positive. Bright and social, she thrived at work in a large insurance company, though she never made a lot of money. The three ladies pooled their money, but it was always tight.

There were brothers, male cousins, and uncles around, but they weren't always helpful. There was an unfortunate abundance of men who drank too much, including the cousin who died after drinking a bad bottle of hooch and was literally found in the gutter.

So these tough women soldiered on, accidentally teaching my mother and her two younger sisters that if you wanted to accomplish something, you could do it yourself; you didn't need a man to do it for you. Fairly revolutionary for the 1930s and '40s.

Other than God (my mother and her sisters were raised and schooled as strict Catholics), there was, however, one man my mother always knew she could count on: Santa Claus.

In my mother's Depression-era world, Christmas morning was always magical. There were dollies and toys and blackboards and clothes under the tree. For one day a year, I think my mom felt like a regular little girl, not "that poor Dolan girl whose father was killed." It was a tremendous gift.

It was a gift, however, that would cause her some trouble in her teens. My mother resolutely repeated her devotion to St. Nick to anyone who would listen. Which is why she was angry and devastated when, at 14 years old, someone at school tried to tell her that Santa Claus was a myth. My mother, who was never in trouble, got into a fistfight over Santa.

As she tearfully told the nuns, "Santa has to be real, because there is no way that my mother would have ever been able to afford the presents we get on Christmas morning."

I think of my mother as her awkward 14-year-old self, skinny, plain, and with her hands balled into fists, and I get a lump in my throat.

I love that my grandmother was able to give my mother and her sisters that magical holiday. I love that strangers likely helped make that magic possible. And I love that my mother was willing to fight to keep that magic intact.

Now that my children are older, I retell this story every year. It serves to remind them how lucky they are, and to be mindful of helping others who are less fortunate. And it reminds me of the gift of coming from a line of strong, independent women.

Maria Archangelo is a newspaper publisher in Vermont. She grew up in the Olney section of Philadelphia.