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MERRY CHRISTMAS TO `MICHAEL’ - LIFE CAN BE HARD TO FIGURE

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THIS IS FOR an 8-year-old boy I'll call Michael. That's not his real name, and he might not read newspapers. But regardless of age or gender, race or name, there are lots of "Michaels." Maybe one of them will read this:

"Dear Michael,"I just wrapped a Christmas present that has your name on it. No, of course I won't tell you what it is, silly. You have to wait until Christmas.

"One of your teachers told me about you - how you're such a nice boy, how much you like to learn, how you hardly ever get into trouble.

"That was you she was talking about, right, not some other kid named Michael? No, I'm sure it was you.

"She knew your family was having a hard time right now, so she asked some of her friends to help out. She told us your names and ages - your brothers' and sisters', even your mom's. I said, `I'll take Michael.' "

"That's why you're getting a Christmas gift from me, someone you don't know, one of those strangers you've been told not to talk to. Pretty weird, huh?

"Life can be hard to figure, whether you're 8 or, well, a lot older. I mean, why should you have to get a Christmas gift from someone who knows nothing about you, instead of from your mom, who knows just what you want but can't afford to buy it? And why should your mom have to work so hard and worry so much - and why can't your dad be there to help?

"Why do some people have so little - no place to sleep, not enough to eat, no warm clothes to wear in the cold - when others seem to have so much that they keep trying to give it away? Why does one family get hard times, when for others, life seems so easy?

"Those are big questions, Michael. I've been asking them since I was your age, and I still don't have an answer. Here's what I think: Life isn't fair, but it gets to call the shots. And if you want to play well, you don't waste time arguing calls.

"Maybe that's why we like helping others at Christmas. We hear a story of how a baby, born to a poor family, was sent to right the wrongs of the world. And hearing it, we remember - rich or poor, young or old, kings and babies alike - that we all have the power, the opportunity, to right a few wrongs ourselves. But mostly, we like helping others because it makes us feel good.

"I wish you could have seen the faces of your teacher's friends. They're older than your mom, these women. But the very thought of helping your family made them shine like little girls. Giving does that to people, Michael. It's a gift for the giver, as much as for the gifted. But sometimes, people enjoy giving so much they forget how hard it can be to receive.

"This Christmas, Michael, you have to learn to receive. It's one of life's harder lessons, so I'll let you learn it in privacy. You won't need to look in my eyes, or say or do anything at all. But try to remember how it feels. Because someday, you'll do the giving.

"Merry Christmas, Michael.

"And no fair peeking."