This was a particularly interesting Christmas for my wife and me. You see, we have a tradition in my family of exchanging Christmas wish lists with the rest of our extended family over the Thanksgiving weekend so that we know what everyone wants for Christmas as we begin our holiday shopping. This started out with very good intentions – we wanted to be sure that what we bought for each other for Christmas were things that we truly wanted, and not just money wasted on something that would end up in the closet, given away or sold at a garage sale. Unfortunately, as the years have passed what started out as gracious communication has become an obligation – an obligation to come up with a list of things that we want that are A) meaningful to us enough that they would be fun for others to give, but also B) at a reasonable price such that they are affordable and reasonable to ask for; and subsequently the obligation to buy things off others’ lists for them. Christmas shopping has become more of a rote task or to-do, and less of a joyful expression of love.
Year after year, it seems, it is getting harder and harder to come up with things to put on our lists. I mean, we’re adults – if we want something, we go get it. We don’t put it on a wish list in the hopes that someone will buy it for us at Christmas, which might be months away. And if we don’t buy it for ourselves, it’s probably because it is a little spendy and we can’t justify the expense. In which case, if we can’t justify purchasing it for ourselves, we certainly can’t ask others to buy it for us at Christmas when they are already buying for 10 to 20 other people as well. So, in the past, we have forced ourselves to come up with a list of things that we “wouldn’t mind having” that are still reasonably priced; which is to say a list of things that we have already determined are not important enough to us to buy for ourselves, and we could essentially take or leave. The knowledge that our family is spending their hard-earned money to buy us things that we can take or leave, and that we are doing the same for them for no other reason than to satisfy the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas day has been hard for us to justify. This year we just hit a wall, and we couldn’t do it.
Now, it’s not that I have some philosophical issue with gift giving – to the contrary, I think it’s wonderful and I thoroughly enjoy the Christmas season. I am particularly fond of “A Christmas Carol” – the version with George C. Scott made in 1984. One of my favorite lines from that movie is when Scrooge’s nephew is inviting him to dinner, and he says:
“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable time; when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely to their fellow man. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver into my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and I say God bless it!”
Gift giving is a wonderful expression of our willingness to open our shut-up hearts, to think of others as much or more than we think of ourselves, and to show our appreciation and love for the people in our lives. And I recall many years when I was really excited about giving a particular gift to a particular person – just anticipating seeing the look on their face when they open the package. Unfortunately, those times are getting fewer and farther apart as joy turns to obligation. The gifts seem to be getting increasingly trivial and meaningless – to both the giver and the receiver.
So this year, when asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told my family that I was immediately reminded of a song by the Goo Goo Dolls called “Better Days”. The lyric I heard in my head was:
“And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days
Cuz I don't need boxes wrapped in strings
And designer love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days”
I told my family that what I would really like is for them to donate their time or money to a charity of their choice; then I would like them to buy or write me a card telling me who they donated to, and why that was meaningful to them. That story would be my gift. It turned out to be more profound an experience than I could have imagined.
Among other members of my family who donated to various charities, my mother and father donated what they would have spent on my wife and me to a single mother and her three children that had lost their home due to floods two years ago. They are now bankrupt and living in a friend’s basement. This alone was enough to bring a tear to my eyes – something no other gift had done in as many years as I could remember. But there was more.
My mother also wrote me a letter telling me about an experience she had had while eating lunch on a day out of shopping. She saw a woman on the corner outside the restaurant holding a sign that said, “Hard Times; Need Help.” So she walked up to the woman and said, “Tell me about your hard times.” The woman explained that she had lost her job two weeks prior, and that she was the sole support for her 20 year old son and his infant son. They were living together in an apartment, but were very concerned that they might soon lose it. It was 29 degrees out, and the woman was clearly cold. My mother asked her if she had had any lunch. She said that she had a sandwich about an hour prior. My mother asked her if she could use a warm drink. The woman said yes, and so my mother went and bought her one and brought it back. After listening to the woman’s story, sympathizing with her, and wishing her “better days”, my mother handed the woman a $20 bill and a packet of tissues for her nose, and wished her a happy holiday.
What was most striking to me about this story, and I believe most meaningful to my mother, was not that she bought her a drink, or gave her $20 when most of us would have felt charitable giving $2, but that she listened to this woman. She acknowledged her as a fellow human being, respected her, sympathized with her, and connected with her. Here was this woman who, on the surface, my mother had nothing in common with. But through a little conversation and mutual respect, my mother found commonality – they were both mothers trying to care for their families.
The gift that my mother gave me through this experience was the knowledge that what was spent on me was meaningful, and it made a difference in the world. The $20 she gave that woman would have bought me a DVD that would have collected dust on my shelf most of the year. But to this woman, $20 may have made the difference between having electricity this month or not; paying rent or not; feeding her children or not. By connecting with this woman, even for a moment, my mother reminded us all that we are more alike with our fellow man than we are different. And if we can just set our assumptions aside for a moment and open up our shut-up hearts to each other, we can discover ourselves in others.
As you consider those who serve to protect and defend our Freedom, I’d encourage you to remember the gift that they are giving to you – the gift of Freedom. This is a very expensive gift for them to give. Your gift to them is to make it meaningful – use it, cherish it, respect it. And pass it on – pay it forward - whenever and wherever you can.