My favorite Christmas story (15.12.2007)
Last week at the office (which is at a hospital), a few of us were talking about the holidays – again! This time we were sharing stories of the holiday activity, or event, that was most special to us. And not a single one of talked of gifts we’d received.
This is the story I shared…
Each year, when wrapping Christmas gifts, I spend the most time on a few very special gifts. These are for “Secret Santa” gift drives, for children whose families have fallen on hard times. I pull out the multiple rolls of holiday gift wrap, the assortment of gift tags I’ve gathered over the years, all the ribbons & bows. My goal is to make each box or package a little work of wrapping ‘art’ – to me, at least!
These special gifts get decorated with candy canes, bells, and a small toy or two – attached to the gift card. We don’t have the names of the children, but have to include a gift tag showing the age range (and any gender information) for the recipient.
My wish is for each of these children to feel that their gift was wrapped with particular care, with love. Because each of these gifts is special, in its own way; it may be the only gift that a young child receives, so I try make it as memorable as I can.
Why go to so much trouble for these specific gifts? Once upon a time, in my late teens, I volunteered at a ‘Secret Santa’ community gift-giving day. I’d been assigned, along with several others, to keep an eye on the tables where children were doing craft activities, opening their gifts, or playing.
One adorable little boy, maybe 4 years old, just sat and clutched his beautifully wrapped gift on his lap for several minutes. Another volunteer & I went over, to see if he needed help opening his gift (or if he’d had a wee accident in all the excitement; we’d been told how to deal with that, without embarrassing a child).
My co-volunteer & I crouched down to talk to him, and he whispered to us that he couldn’t open the gift. Because he had to keep all the trim “new”.
He wanted to give “his” bows to his mom, for Christmas, so she could put “pretty things” in her long hair for the holidays. And he wanted to give the gift wrap – a collage of Christmas tree photos – to his dad, so his dad could put it up on the wall of their apartment. His dad had told his son a few days earlier that they wouldn’t be able to have a tree this year.
And all the bright & shiny ribbons? He wanted to give those to his baby sister – as a toy. We offered to get him clean wrapping paper & bows, but this little boy was adamant – he had to share “his” gift with his family. My co-volunteer looked at each other, blinked back tears, and got to work.
(This would likely horrify many folks working in bioethics & patient confidentiality (i.e. privacy) now, in 2007, but things were different back then – in so many ways! My suburban city had something of a village vibe, and most of the people volunteering at this holiday event knew quite a bit about each of the attendees and their families.
The feeling back then, in the volunteer sphere, was that you had to know someone – to know about their personal situation – in order to provide assistance to them. I’ve seen a steady drift away from that attitude, for the sake of protecting individuals’ privacy, and wonder whether there’s been any negative impact. I wonder, for example, whether the kind of story I’m going to share could happen today.)
So I knew that this little boy’s family had lost everything earlier in the year; his father had gotten ill and lost his job, while his mother was too heavily pregnant to work. The family had been evicted in late spring or early summer, and was just starting to get back on their feet. And they were new to this area, to this community.
This little boy had been brought to the event, unplanned, by a community outreach worker. His dad was at work, and his mom was caring for a fussy baby. No gift had been set aside for him, so one of the volunteers rushed out to get him a gift, and had wrapped it with a profusion of bows & ribbons.
So down we sat, the other volunteer and I, and used scissors to cut through the invisible tape – trying not to damage the gift wrap. Then we very slowly peeled each bow, each ribbon, off the paper. We found an empty gift wrap tube, and rolled his salvaged gift wrap into it, and then popped in the ribbons & bows – from which we’d removed all the sticky bits.
Soon after we began dismantling the gift, Mrs. K (one of the organizers) had come over to ask what we were doing; my co-volunteer had pulled her aside to explain, and she’d told us to “be sure to take a half hour”. We thought the woman who’d brought this little boy to the event was taking a break, having lunch with some of the volunteers and other kids. We hadn’t realized that Mrs. K. had then called a whole crew of Santa’s elves to action.
The whole time that we were separating the bows & ribbons from the wrapping paper, this little guy sat quietly clutching his now-bare gift to his lap – watching us like a hawk. It was as though he couldn’t let himself even look down at his own gift – until the gifts for his family had been taken care of.
When he finally did open his gift box, the look of joy on his face was priceless. His gift was a boot box – filled with an array of colouring books, crayons, and small educational toys: “This… this all… for me?!?” It wasn’t the most expensive, or the most exciting gift that was unwrapped that day, but I’m fairly sure that it was the best reaction.
So what had Mrs. K and her elves been up to, while we were cutting apart all the trimmings on this little boy’s gift box? First off, she’d taken money out of her wallet, and handed it to one of the volunteers; so he could go to the nearby supermarket, and pick up food for an impromptu food basket.
Another 2 volunteers were tasked with sorting through the unwrapped gifts that had been donated, but hadn’t yet been wrapped. Their mission? To find any gifts that would be suitable for this little boy, or for his infant sister. Then they put the unwrapped gifts into 2 large fabric gift bags that someone had made as decorations for the event.
Another volunteer was asked to hastily decorate the small – but very pretty – artificial Christmas tree that someone had donated, after they’d bought a larger tree. This individual had donated some tree decorations as well, so those went into the tree, along with one of the puffy garlands that had been put up as a decoration in the hall – and had then fallen down just before the kids had come in.
And during all this time, Mrs. K. quietly wandered the hall checking on the other children. She’d crouch down every now, to look at a child’s drawing and chat with them a moment. If anyone had looked closely, they’d have seen her slipping taped numbers onto the bottoms of some of the chairs.
What was she up to? The results of her quick thinking – and last-minute planning – were a surprise to everyone in the room, not only to this little boy…
Mrs. K called out for everyone’s attention, and asked everyone except the volunteers to have a seat (my co-volunteer and I had been told not to let ‘our’ little boy change seats). She announced that the event was ending, and that it was time for the raffle.
She had a bowl full of slips of paper, each with a number on it. She called up one of the parents, to pick a number from the bowl. The number was a 6. Mrs. K explained that some of the children-sized chairs had numbers taped underneath them, so asked each of the children to check the bottom of their chair – with help from a guardian, parent, or volunteer – to find the number 6.
The winner was a little girl, who was given a box of chocolates “to bring home for the holidays”. Someone had given it to Mrs. K, to thank her for organizing the event. That little girl drew the next number, a 12.
This little boy, to whose chair a 12 had been surreptitiously taped while he was playing with his new cars, was handed a large cookie tin shaped like Santa Claus. It was stuffed to the brim with an assortment of home-made cookies; Mrs. K had filled it with some of the extras that hadn’t been needed.
Two more numbers were drawn, and 2 little girls won home-made food prizes to bring home for their families. The first was a holiday platter of different bars and squares, like brownies and lemon squares. The second was another holiday cookie tin, this one of store-bought cookies.
By this time most of the kids were getting restless, so Mrs. K hurriedly announced the grand prize. Two volunteers brought in the newly-decorated (slightly used) Christmas tree, along with the 2 large gift bags. A third volunteer brought up the rear, with a large basket of food. Bottles of fancy jams and jellies, tins of meat and fish, some chocolates and cookies, powdered hot chocolate, instant coffee, tea, packages of hot cereal pouches… Probably not the healthiest of food baskets, but it looked very festive!
Mrs. K called on the event co-organizer, to draw the final number; for the grand prize winner… It was an 8, and that was the number taped to the bottom of ‘our’ little boy’s chair. He seemed dazed, so my co-volunteer ushered him up to Mrs. K, and I carried his gift – along with the wrapping paper tube carrying the ‘gifts’ for his family.
Mrs. K crouched down to ask him if it was “all right” that he’d won a Christmas tree, and told him that he didn’t have to take it if his family already had one – a stroke of pure genius that I never appreciated until later. She’d wanted to ensure that neither this child, nor his parents, would ever suspect that the raffle had been rigged. And she told him that the gift bags were to be opened only on Christmas morning.
With that, Mrs. K announced the end of the event; she thanked the organizers and volunteers, as well as all the kids & parents who came out to join us. Then she corralled the outreach worker, and lined up a few people with cars to deliver all of the “prizes” to this little boy’s home.
I had to leave, to head off to my after-school and weekend job, but heard from some of the other volunteers about the mom’s reaction. Her son had come home with a few strangers, bearing a fully decorated – if small – Christmas tree, a large food basket, and 2 large bags of gifts. And his original gift box of crayons and colouring books, along with a mysterious wrapping paper tube.
Once her disbelief had dissipated, she’d opened one of the boxes of fancy cookies in the basket, and had made coffee and tea for the volunteers who’d delivered everything. She’d asked them to stay for a few minutes, until her husband got home from work – so that he would thank them as well. A friend told me that when the father walked in the door, and saw the Christmas tree, the gift bags, and his beaming wife and son, he had started to weep.
This remains, 20 years on, the Christmas story that has most touched my heart. And the reason why, each year, I spend so much time decorating the gifts for Secret Santa gift drives. The memory of that adorable little boy, who wanted to give his mom the bows to put in her hair for the holidays…
With that, I wish you happy holidays, whichever you celebrate (or don’t).
May the joy of the holiday season touch your life, and the lives of those you love…