Right now my boys are digging into their pile of gifts from yesterday. They’ve played with some things already, mostly the new video games they got for their Wii, and the hockey net and sticks they received since the weather was unseasonably warm today.
All the wrapping paper is picked up and discarded, all the ‘anticipation’ of what the next package might hold is past. The stockings, just yesterday bulging with pencils and cupcake shaped flexible bandages and holiday shaped Peeps, lay flat and almost two-dimensional against the mantle of the fireplace.
While taking my mom to the grocery store today, and stopping at my local library to pick her up some new reads in the used book store downstairs, I overheard several people saying they were glad that Christmas was over for another year. Not that they disliked it, but that it’s overwhelming for some. Prior to yesterday, I heard many others talking about how ‘Christmased out’ they were with all the music and shopping and schmaltzy movies and rushing around.
Even I rushed around – the 72 hours leading up to the day were jam packed with activities – finishing my shopping (I admit I held off on a few things this year, which isn’t normal for me), doing all the wrapping, taking Mom to get a perm, food shopping for Christmas dinner, doctor appointments for one of the kids and myself, and a drive up to Maine to visit my Dad with the boys on Wednesday before coming back home and getting the boys into bed and playing ‘Santa’ for them on what I suspect will be the last year they believe in such a magical person being the benefactor of their Christmas day spoils.
Irrespective of all that, I’ve been looking forward to this Christmas more than any other I can recall. No amount of rushing or crowded stores or impatient shoppers and store clerks dented my anticipation of the day in any way. This year, I knew that Christmas was going to be something more than just the music, the packages, and the trimmings. This year, we were going to teach the boys what Christmas REALLY is about, or should be.
A month or more ago I felt discouraged by all the crass commercialism of the holiday and what it seems to have become. I’m not a religious person – I don’t go to church, I don’t have a faith I ‘practice’, and I don’t at all try to instruct others on putting the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas. I don’t disparage anyone who does all those things; it just isn’t for me.
My husband posted some very intriguing and inspiring words on Facebook yesterday. They are taken from various world religions. They all seem to carry the same message:
If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you?
~ 1 John 3:17
Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.
Those who believe and do good deeds — the Gracious God will create love in their hearts.
~ Quran 19:97
Find and follow the good path and be ruled by compassion. For if the various ways are examined, compassion will prove the means to liberation ~ Tirukkural 25: 241-242
No matter what you follow or believe or just carry in your heart, there have long been universal messages of showing compassion to those less fortunate and sharing in your own good fortune with those who don’t enjoy what you enjoy. For some this is a check they write each year, or money dropped in a red kettle outside their favorite retailers – and I would never try to discourage anyone from doing those things. I only caution to investigate what percentage of your donation actually goes directly to the charity demographic and what portion goes to ‘administrative fees’ and ‘salaries’ and such. Sometimes it can be very eye opening how little of your generous offering actually reaches a person in need.
As I said, I’m not a religious person. Neither is my husband. We don’t go to church, we don’t read scripture, we don’t teach religion to the boys – we have determined to ‘tell them about it’ and let them make their own decision what they do and what they believe when they are old enough. I don’t wish to teach the boys ‘fear’ of a benevolent being as a means of following a kind and loving path in life. I want them to learn to do it because it’s ‘the right thing to do’ and something that fills them with happiness and satisfaction – not with anxiety that they are doing what they need to do to avoid ‘burning for all eternity’ for their sins. I know not all faiths promote that message – but I still don’t want to ‘promote’ any one faith over another. Faith, in my mind, is something very personal – and something you should decide for yourself.
The messages imparted by various faiths, as my husband posted, are, however, relatively universal in their intent – share your good fortune with others – have compassion for those less fortunate. These messages, which need not be based in religion, but rather can be based in mining the depths of your heart for empathy for fellow human beings, are what I wish to teach to the boys, and my husband agreed. Therefore, I shared with him, back in November, a desire I had to do something very different this Christmas – something that would still give the boys their usual ‘enjoyment’, but also might just help them develop a greater appreciation of that they have and what they receive – by seeing others who have nothing – and sharing in our good fortune with those people – and I wanted to put it (and have the boys do so as well) directly into the hands of people who needed it.
Yesterday morning the boys awoke at 7am and we all opened our stockings and enjoyed the treats inside. Then, before breakfast and before unwrapping any further presents, we dressed, climbed into the car, and drove into Boston, to an area I used to walk through many mornings from the subway stop to my office, passing many homeless people along the way still sleeping in doorways and over steaming grates to try to stay warm as they struggled to survive on the streets.
The night of the 24th, before the boys went to bed, we all stuffed gift bags with things we have purchased in the last month – fleece blankets…thick socks….knit hats…..and lined them up along the wall in the living room in anticipation of the morning. We took our bags with us as we left the house Christmas morning.
We parked on a side street in the financial district – which ironically seems to attract the wealthiest and poorest citizens of Boston alike. This morning, however, only one ‘class’ of people was visible. The poorest.
My husband and I, flanked by the boys, trudged through the rain puddles and drizzle and fog and one by one stopped at each place we found a homeless person and handed them a gift bag. We’d also put in $15.00 gift cards to Dunkin Donuts in many, in hopes that people could get something hot to eat or drink at least that day. It only took about 30 minutes before our supplies were depleted, but our minds and our hearts were still full of the ‘God bless you’ and ‘Merry Christmas to you all’ and ‘Thank you”s that we all received.
Both of the boys had ‘difficult beginnings’ in life – the people we encountered yesterday could easily have been either one of them. It could be any of us really – homelessness is a non-discriminating problem. You can be old, young, tall, short, white, black, gay, straight, or anyone really and find yourself trying to stay alive on the streets day in and day out. The notion that there are shelters for that to take in everyone and house everyone is a false one – the notion that homeless people choose to be homeless is a false one – the notion that they are all mentally ill or drug addicted is a false one. They are everyone….they are you and me and everyone else in the world…or at least very much like us.
After handing out our bags, the boys agreed that this should be an annual Christmas tradition for our family, which we were very glad to hear. One of the boys has encountered homeless people in his travels, and displayed far more of an understanding of what we did yesterday – the other one will most likely catch up to that, but he has never really found himself face to face with this segment of the population, until yesterday.
We came home and the boys tore into their presents with all the enthusiasm and vigor eight and nine year old boys can muster – and were of course thrilled with their gifts. Our excursion in the early part of the day, while it may not have dampened their excitement for their own Christmas treats, also did nothing to detract from their enjoyment of the day. For one of them, it made a very deep impression. For several homeless people, it means warmer feet and heads and bodies and a warm meal and drink in their bellies yesterday.
For me, it filled me with a kind of peace on Christmas that I’d not yet known in my life. I love Christmas, but this year I have to admit that I love it just a little bit more. This year I not only got to play Santa Claus (albeit perhaps for the last time), but we also showed the boys that they can be Santa Claus as well, long after they stop believing in him.
Merry Christmas to all – many of you may have taken your trees and decorations down – many of you may be breathing a deep sigh of relief that it’s ‘over’ – but for me – for the lesson we have begun to teach the boys – compassion for others and sharing your good fortune with them – this is a gift that will keep giving time and time again….and hopefully spill over into the boys’ lives on a daily basis….and as long as it goes on….the spirit of Christmas, for me, will never end.