Karen Swim’s post I Gave at the Office started me thinking about past Christmases. Karen wrote about obligatory office gift-giving and offered several excellent alternatives.
I’ve worked alone for a dozen years or so now so I don’t deal with these issues. But when I owned an interior landscape company, we always had a dinner for our employees and their families. We set up tables in the warehouse, so obviously it was a casual affair. Everyone brought a dish, and we had a good time relaxing together and getting to know everyone’s spouses and kids.
We also gave the employees a chance to volunteer together to distribute toys to needy children. The Elf Louise Project was started in 1969 by a college student who collected toys for 13 families. Now the charity delivers toys to more than 20,000 children in about 6,000 families with the help of nearly 5,000 volunteers.
Employees of our interior landscape company who wanted to participate signed up to join a company Elf Louise team. Our company usually fielded several 3-man teams at different times during the holiday season.
One person was assigned to be Santa—the organization provided a Santa suit. One was the driver who had to stay with the car at all times, and the third was the elf responsible for navigating and keeping track of which kid got what toy.
We were given safety warnings, such as never park in a position where we couldn’t make a fast getaway, because many of the homes we delivered toys to were in high-crime neighborhoods. One night the team I was with ended up on a dead-end street. As we were leaving, a carload of rough-looking teenagers pulled in front of us and screeched to a stop. All four doors were thrown open and what looked like a gang of youths jumped out and ran over to our car.
We sat there frantically trying to figure a way out. The boys ran up to the window, yelling, “Santa! Santa! Santa!” We gave them candy from Santa’s bag—Elf Louise provided lots of candy to give away to the kids not on Santa’s list who inevitably showed up when Santa arrived. All our candy that night went to the “gang” of tough-looking guys, who grinned and high-fived each other and said, “Thanks, Santa!” Then they jumped back in their car and drove away.
Experiences like that are worth more than any gifts we could exchange with coworkers.
That memory sparked a memory of another Santa experience.
When I was a member of a local organization for women business owners, we wanted to do something for the Battered Women’s Shelter for Christmas. Our contact told us they had lots of gifts and parties already donated for Shelter residents, but they had just started a program to help women and their children transition to life on their own. Women who had been placed in jobs and moved into apartments needed Christmas presents for their children. We volunteered to host a party and give gifts to those families. That first year there were only 12 families with about 20 children in the program. A church near the Shelter provided space, and the Shelter gave us a list of families, including the names and ages of the children. We solicited donations for the gifts, and half a dozen of us planned the party.
One of our members had played Santa for other organizations and offered to wear her Santa suit to the party. As I was preparing to go to the party, on impulse I picked up my Polaroid camera. I didn’t have any film, so Santa and I stopped at a drugstore on the way to the church. It was quite a sight to see Santa walk through the store—kids materialized from everywhere and followed Santa like kids in the story followed the Pied Piper.
We got to the church, decorated the room, and set up refreshments. As the families arrived, they were quiet and reserved. The kids looked at Santa but shyly clung to their mothers. We had to encourage them to help themselves to cookies and punch, but once the kids had the refreshments in their hands, they grinned between bites and inched a little closer to Santa.
We told the children to sit on Santa’s lap to get their presents and have their picture taken. They hesitated, but the lure of all the gifts stacked beside Santa finally pulled them forward. The children sat on Santa’s lap and received their gifts. I took a picture of each child, then invited the mothers to join all their children for a family photo. They smiled and shook their heads. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want a picture until one mother shyly asked, “How much does it cost?” They thought we were going to make them pay for the pictures, and when we said they were free, they hurried over to stand beside Santa with their children. Several of the mothers had tears in their eyes and said, “This is the first picture I’ve ever had with my children.”
We gave a gift to each mother and some food items for the families. When no one made any move to open the gifts, I said, “Don’t you want to open your presents?” The mothers gave me a puzzled look and one said, “Oh no, we want the kids to have the gifts on Christmas morning. These are the only presents they’ll get.”
We thought we were making the families’ Christmas a little brighter. In fact, we were giving them the only Christmas they would have. And my impulsive grabbing of my Polaroid camera resulted in one of the best gifts of all.
Through the years, the program grew to the point that the last time we hosted the party (shortly before the women business owners’ organization dissolved), there were about 300 families and 700 or 800 children. We had dozens of volunteers instead of the original half dozen, tons of donated food, and gifts for every child and every mother. I knew to invite the mothers and children to have their pictures taken for free, and we expected that the families would head to the bus stop with bags of unopened gifts so they would have presents to open on Christmas Day.
Participating in these annual parties made me appreciate anew my childhood. When I was growing up, we didn’t have many material goods, but we always had a joyous Christmas. My parents told me that when I was in the first grade or so, I begged for a dollhouse for Christmas. That dollhouse was far beyond Santa’s budget, and my parents felt so bad that they couldn’t give me what I wanted. They saved up and gave me the dollhouse the next Christmas. By that time, I was no longer interested and seldom played with it. I don’t remember any of that—obviously I wasn’t traumatized by being deprived of the dollhouse the year I wanted it so desperately, but it made such a deep impression on my parents that they mentioned it for years afterward.
Daddy always built our Christmas tree. He chopped down several soapbush trees on the farm. He used the largest and most shapely one as the base, then he filled in with branches from the other bushes to make a huge tree. Unlike traditional Christmas trees, it was almost round. Then he loaded it down with lights and decorations and dotted snow (made from whipped Ivory Snow soap) on the branches. I’ve never seen another tree that looked anything like Daddy’s Christmas trees. You can get a glimpse of it in this family photo of my parents and their grown children. Christmas meant lots of family, food, faith, and love.
Christmas is quieter for us now. My parents are gone, and the rest of the family is scattered. Jack and I will go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and have dinner on Christmas Day with my sister and her friend at a local restaurant. The next day, we’ll all get together with my brother and his family from Phoenix, who will spend Christmas Day with my sister-in-law’s family.
There are fewer people than when my parents were alive, but we’ll still have plenty of food, faith, and love. We’ll still remember the reason for Christmas—to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came that we might have eternal life.