Breaking a tradition, habit, or ritual is always tough, especially those that have been around for our entire lives. So, as one can imagine, going into the Christmas season knowing that there would be absolutely no presents caused some angst and uncertainty for a mother of two. Make no mistake: I was simply thrilled that I didn’t have to wrap up another grueling quarter of grad school only to fight the shopping crowds in the remaining two weeks before Christmas. Nor was it unpleasant to pack the car to visit family in Utah without having to play Tetris with odd-shaped packages while the bows found a new home in my hair. No, I was quite relieved and content. No black Friday shopping, no hour-long searches online. Just December. Just family and friends. Yet, I wondered how the kids would do with no Santa and no presents. I feared they would be sad, whiny, or miserable. I feared that I might be those things too.
It turns out that planning service projects is no easy task. For safety and liability reasons, many places would not allow children to volunteer. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. Many did not allow children to volunteer their time. They were happy to take money or gifts from anyone, including our 8 and 11 year old. However, it was somewhat difficult to find ways to actually give of our time and effort…to actually be with people who needed company and to seek to brighten their day. But, not surprisingly, the church had answers, and we were blessed to be connected with others who had suggestions. It wasn’t long before we had several activities lined up.
We began at a place filled with wise, wonderful people who are often overlooked or dismissed in our country: a retirement center for senior citizens. This was our first act of service, and the kiddos were nervous. Admittedly, so was I. Would people find it odd that we weren’t family or friends, but simply strangers stopping by? Would the kids be too shy? Would they be scared by those with dementia or physical disabilities? And what would we do? What would we talk about? Me, being the planner I am, made sure we arrived with bags full of games to play, books to read, and snacks to share. Things cannot go wrong if we plan well enough, right?!? Our first stop was a room with a couple who were not too interested in anything but a quick hello. Odd stares and nods. The TV was much more interesting than us. Our anxiety increased and my husband and I gave the “oh boy” look to one another. But, the next room was quite a different story. A dear 105-year-old woman greeted us with a big smile. She shared stories of her life: Born in China, was a teacher, moved to the U.S. with her husband, and attended school to further her education. Photos adorned her walls. Family, friends, and trips across the world. She was quite the traveler. She was warm and welcoming and it was a pure joy to watch as Cameron read an Elephant and Piggie book to her. She complimented him on his enunciation (she was a teacher after all) and told Adam and I what a great job we were doing on exposing our children to “people of different ethnicities.” She was simply wonderful. When we returned the following week, we could hardly escape her room without a half-dozen cookies filling our stomachs and hands.
We made other friends at the retirement home as well. We played bingo together, swapped stories, and simply shared our time. Taylor and I will be returning soon to paint nails with the ladies and Cameron will visit his adored friend Dee, who has a wicked sense of humor that he loves. Some friends who know us by sight when we enter, and some who forget us the moment we step away from the room. All beautiful people. It’s always a mix of emotions as we walk out. Sadness, inspiration, despair, love, joy, contentment, and somehow….hope…even in a place where people are in their last stages of life. Hope in relationships, in humanity. The mix of emotions somehow boils down to a simmering love for and appreciation of this thing we call life.
We also had the privilege of being involved with a service project that a couple from our church have been doing for decades. Based in Mexico, there is a tradition called Luminaries in which lighted candles once lead the way to the church on Christmas Eve. This has been expanded over time so that the lights now represent preparing the night for the arrival of the Savior. So, every year, this dear couple hands out over 1,500 fliers to the homes of their neighbors and surrounding blocks. Families have the opportunity to purchase luminares for $1(a votive candle in a simple brown bag with sand in the bottom) to set out on their curbs, porches, or driveways on Christmas Eve. The money paid goes to the buyer’s charity of choice. So, our family helped sort candles and bags, and then helped scoop sand and deliver orders the weekend before Christmas Eve. We also purchased some of our own luminares and put them out at the Elizabeth House on Christmas Eve, a home for women and their children who are seeking to get out of abusive relationships.
It’s a simple idea, nothing explicitly life-changing about the task. Yet, simplicity is what we needed and I cannot fully describe the way in which we were ministered to during this activity. Ernie and Judy invited us into their home and their lives. They fed us, and treated us like family during our times with them. The kids could not get enough. The love and joy that they have fostered in their own lives and through this project was evident as neighbors flocked to their house to pick up orders. We once again found ourselves sharing stories, and feeling fulfilled as we saw the love of God radiating from others. That same love that we sought to give, was being given to us. And the bonus: It came with fun perks for the kids too! Cleaning up leaves and delivering luminaries becomes very exciting when one gets to use a leaf blower and a small electric truck. It reminded me of my times growing up, when being neighbors really meant something and people had time to just be together.
As I look back and reflect on the experience, I realize there was nothing spectacular or particularly amazing about what we did this Christmas season. However, the ease of which we were able to enjoy the holiday was remarkable. It was almost too easy, too good. Not once did we feel saddened or left out by getting rid of the gifts. Not one tear or pout on Christmas morning. Our attention and focus on relationships left us feeling content and satisfied in ways that are really not explainable. Our ability to listen to and really engage with others was heightened. And low and behold, we experienced…joy. We were deeply ministered to, in a way all too mysterious and all too uncommon in our lives right now. I remember asking myself countless times, why haven’t we done this before?
As we helped serve dinner in the park for those without a home, I was reminded that our relationships are not a given. There is nothing specific about being human that ensures we will truly love and cherish one another. I look at some of the people at the park and in the street who are homeless, and I think: I wonder when was the last time they were hugged? Have they been told lately that they mean something? That they are worthy to be cherished? And what about people in positions of great wealth and power? Do they experience grace and forgiveness? Are they appreciated just for being human? As I reflect on our experience and on my life in general, I cannot escape the difficult but necessary reminder that there are many people who are deeply hurting. There are times when we all have been hurt or have inflicted pain on another. Yet, there are also people who are serving and loving one another, despite their circumstances. Bearers of relentless hope and perseverance. And we all have the chance to do just that. In small ways that make a big difference. Not just for the served, but also for those who serve.
On Christmas morning, we woke up and had breakfast as a family. We played games and simply relaxed and praised God for the miracles He provides every day. And not the house or the car or the clothes. Instead, the people. Human beings, with all of their strife, shortcomings, and vices, have wonderful potential for love, connection, and a life worth living. The family and friends in our lives, old and new, young and old, are nothing short of miraculous, undeserved gifts.