Each year at this time, I, along with millions of others the world over, find ourselves giddily immersed in feelings of yuletide and good cheer. The annual respite has come, and once again we engage in ritualistic activities that are the hallmark of the Holiday season. It is a time when all of humanity is overflowing with joy and anticipation, preoccupied with thoughts of sharing this special time with loved ones and friends.
It’s almost as if a switch is thrown, and people are magically transformed into ambassadors of goodwill. Strangers go out of their way to catch a glimpse of one another while passing by and, without hesitation, willingly offer a smile, a greeting, or a friendly “hello”. We merrily go about the hustle and bustle of shopping, exchanging gifts, attend Holiday parties, trim our Christmas trees, decorate our living rooms and foyers, and for those with means, hang luminous lights outside in what has become an insatiable desire to be the household on the block with the most lavish display of blinking lights, Santa Clauses, reindeer, and nativity scenes. These artistic expressions—some of which sporadically appear even before the last slice of turkey is carved from the carcass and made into a sandwich—could easily rival the neon lights that illuminate the night sky in Las Vegas.
Through the words of the beloved animated character, Charlie Brown, I ask:
“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
A few years ago, I found myself pondering the essence of that very question. Yes, you read that correctly…a question that was brought to light by a cartoon character named Charlie Brown. That in itself is not unusual. What was unusual was that I was 53 years old at the time. Was this an epiphany, you might ask? It might have been.
This was the same year that my wife’s niece and nephew, both of whom were ten and eleven years old respectively, traveled from Philadelphia to spend the Holidays with my wife, my stepdaughter, and me in Massachusetts. My wife had great plans for us during this joyous time of year in that we were about to embark on a life lesson—and this was particularly so for the kids. It was a selfless journey that entailed baking dozens of chocolate chip cookies that we would personally distribute to homeless people on the streets of downtown Boston. It didn’t matter that at least half of the cookies were burned to a crisp on the bottom and were as hard as a rock. Who cared, they were only for the homeless, right? We even lugged a gallon of hot chocolate and paper cups with us to warm not only the bellies of those who were downtrodden and less fortunate, but to also attempt to warm their spirits.
Three days before Christmas, the five of us eagerly piled into the car, and on that cold, frosty evening, we drove approximately 50 miles to Boston while listening to CD’s of Holiday songs to which we occasionally sang along. The temperature outside was in the single digits; it was C-O-L-D! Upon our arrival, we gleefully jumped out of the car, bundled up, and proceeded to carry the hot chocolate and a large, round plastic Tupperware bowl filled with the cookies to distribute to anyone we happened to meet.
Shivering, and on the verge of coming down with frostbite, we walked and walked and walked—street after street, block after block. Through the Boston Commons and the public gardens we traipsed. Not a creature was stirring…not even a mouse, or a pigeon, or anything. We saw no one. Finally, we encountered a man approaching from the opposite direction. He was clearly a man of the streets, and he kept his distance from us as one of the kids offered him a cookie and some hot chocolate. Being wary of our intent, he declined and moved on. We continued walking and doubled back, only to run into the same man again. This time, his demeanor appeared less defensive. We made another offer to him and he accepted. Although he lived in the streets, he exuded a comforting humility that transcended his circumstances. How could he be so happy? After sizing us up and realizing that we were not a threat to him, he gleefully expressed his gratitude for our generosity and goodwill.
We had a pleasant chat with this gentleman, and during the course of our conversation, I inquired where everyone [homeless people] was. He told us that even the homeless had sense enough to find temporary shelter somewhere indoors on the cold night that it was. And with a smirk plastered across his old, weathered face, he asked us what we were doing outside that night. Good question, I thought. We were on a mission—doing good deeds—helping our fellow human beings. As he finished his hot chocolate, he thanked us and wished us a Merry Christmas. He then stuck two cookies in his coat pocket and disappeared into the cold, winter night.
It was two days before Christmas, and our entourage made its way to a local mall. Not surprisingly, we ended up at Wal-Mart, and while there, asked the kids to pick out two gifts each. One selected an I-Pod and a music CD, another chose an educational game and doll with all the accessories, and the third had their eye on a video game and a small, battery-operated radio. And then the shocking revelation hit them: the gifts weren’t for them—they were going to be donated to ‘The Home for Little Wanderers’, an organization that collects and distributes gifts to disadvantaged children. My stepdaughter did a great job of almost alienating herself from her cousins when she expressed her desire to donate any and all gifts she might receive each year to children in need; that went over really well with the other two…
On Christmas Eve, we drove into Boston once again to deliver the gifts to the Home for Little Wanderers. The kids, when they came to see for themselves the difference that their ‘gifts’ made to that child who had no mother, no father, and sometimes no family at all to love them and care for them, I detected a glimmer of that spirit of giving that my wife so adamantly wanted them to feel. There was no question that they were pleased at the prospect of helping another child. It seemed as though the three of them matured in an instant; they were able to put aside their own desires and replaced them with compassion.
Christmas Day had finally arrived. MERRY CHRISTMAS! After a modest breakfast, we got dressed and prepared for yet another journey into Bean-town. Where on earth could we possibly be going on Christmas Day? Why, we were off to the Pine Street Inn, a local homeless shelter in Boston to help serve Christmas dinner to those with no means or a place to call home. And serve dinner we did, right along with a number of other volunteers who thought enough about others to donate their time, and in some cases, their resources to a worthy cause. Here’s the kicker, though…little did my stepdaughter, niece, and nephew know that they would be helping out while standing alongside a well-known member of the Boston Celtics, a member of the New England Patriots, a movie actress, and two local news anchors, all of whom pitched in to serve food, wash dishes, and sweep the floor!
I am of the opinion that it is important for all children (who have parents or guardians with the means) to experience the true spirit of Christmas through selfless acts of giving—for it is one of the great lessons in life. My wife successfully accomplished her objective on that Christmas of several years ago. She instilled in our young family members the importance of doing whatever you can for another human being, however small, particularly during this special time of year. This poignant lesson is one that they carry with them to this day, and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.
This, to me, is the true spirit of Christmas. And through it all, I can now separate the commercialization aspect of Christmas from its true, intended purpose.
I wish all of you and yours a splendid Holiday Season!
Peace, Love, and Joy.