But I also have wonderful memories of Christmas events with complete strangers—Christmases that reminded me of the true reason for the celebration. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. He came to show the love of God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I have been blessed to have had several occasions at Christmas when I could share that love with others.
I wrote about Christmas memories a couple of years ago. One of my favorites is the first year a group of women business owners gave a party for mothers and their children who were in transition from the Battered Women’s Shelter. We had originally offered to give a party or provide gifts for women and children in the Shelter, but staff told us the Shelter received much support from the community at Christmas. However, nothing was being done for a group of women who were in a new transition program. We agreed to give a party and gifts for these twelve women and their children (a total of about twenty children).
The families had stayed at the Shelter for weeks or months until the women found jobs and moved into their own apartments. This was their first Christmas without the husband and father, and although the man had been abusive, being apart from their father during the holidays was difficult and stressful for many of the children. The women were struggling to support and care for their children on their own for the first time. Although the Shelter staff explained all this to us, we didn’t fully comprehend the situation.
We got a list of names and ages of the children and members of the businesswomen’s group bought two or three gifts for each child. We gave the mothers gift certificates to a discount store, and we packaged up some food for each family.
About six of us went to a church in the neighborhood of the Battered Women’s Shelter to host the party. One of our members had played Santa in the past and owned a Santa suit, so she offered to be Santa at the party. As I was leaving the office to go to the party, I had a sudden inspiration. I pulled my Polaroid camera out of my desk and took it with me. I didn’t have any film, so after we assembled at the meeting place and loaded everything into a couple of cars, “Santa” and I made a trip to a nearby drugstore to buy film.
Kids came running from all directions to follow Santa through the store. After we bought enough film to take several pictures of each child, we headed down to the church. The room was already filled with women and children—we learned they had to arrive early because buses didn’t run very often in that area, and if they had waited for the next bus, they would have missed most of the party.
We served refreshments, and although the children and their mothers were shy, they seemed to enjoy the cookies and punch. Then Santa got in position for gift distribution and photo-taking. All the kids hung back—they didn’t seem to want to go up to Santa to get their presents and have their pictures taken. I walked around the perimeter of the room, encouraging the kids to go see Santa. They all nodded politely, but no one said or did anything.
Finally, one of the women, asked in a low voice, “How much does it cost?”
It had never occurred to me that they were afraid they had to pay, but their only experience of pictures with Santa was at the malls, and they could never afford to have their kids’ pictures taken. When I told them it was free, the kids lined up quickly with big grins on their face.
Then one of the mothers asked me, “Would you take a picture of me with my kids? I’ve never had a picture of all of us together.”
I could hardly see through the tears glistening in my eyes and could barely answer through the lump in my throat. “Of course, I’ll be glad to take your picture.” Looking through the camera lens to take the photos, I saw some of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen in my life. And I can’t begin to describe the joy on each mother’s faces when the Polaroid picture developed and she saw the first photo ever taken of her with her children.
The kids clutched their big bags of gifts and the mothers held tightly to their own bags. No one made a move to open the gifts, so I encouraged the family nearest me to open their gifts.
“Oh, no!” the mother said. “They’re saving their presents so they will have gifts to open on Christmas Day.”
Can you imagine any child you know joyfully saving a gift for a couple of weeks, thrilled they would have a present to open on Christmas morning?
The other ladies and I looked at each other in amazement. We thought we were making Christmas a little brighter for these families. Instead, we were giving them the only Christmas they would have.
I know the party and the gifts meant a lot to those families, but the experience was as meaningful to me as it was to them. We have so many blessings, and we take them so much for granted. Those of us putting on the party were so naive that we never imagined that party and those gifts would be Christmas for the families who attended. We never imagined that a simple Polaroid picture would mean so much to a mother.
The photos weren’t even planned—by the women putting on the party, at least. They were planned by God, and I know the Holy Spirit prompted me to reach for that camera when I had no thought of doing so. I am so grateful for this experience.
The women business owners put on a party for women in transition from the Battered Women’s Shelter for a number of years after that until the group disbanded. By the second year, there were dozens of mothers and nearly a hundred children. After a few years, there were several hundred children. We always took Polaroid pictures of the children and of the family groups, and we always expected to see the mothers and their children lugging their packages to the bus stop after the party.
That first party, though, will always be a very special Christmas memory.