Tuesday, December 13, 2011
The Ghost of Christmas Past
When Sir Knight and I moved our family to a little shouse on the prairie, with no electricity, no running water and a pitifully low bank account, we had no idea what the future had in store.
The fall that we moved in, we optimistically anticipated having running water and a flushing toilet within 3 weeks. We thought we would have drains and at least a light bulb or two within a month. As it turned out, our estimations were grossly underestimated. We finally had running water (cold only) and a flushing toilet about 1 year after moving in and nary a light bulb for six months after that.
The first winter of our new life was nothing short of life changing. We showered at a fitness center in town about twice a week (whether we needed to or not!), washed our clothes in a galvanized tub on the top of the wood cookstove, ate lentil burgers and read stories by lantern light. Our life had taken a drastically different turn. As much as we tried to embrace our off-grid existence, the stress began to to take its toll.
Apparently, others noticed our reduced circumstances. One afternoon, a car I didn't recognize drove up our driveway. I stepped out of the door and was greeted by an pleasant looking older woman. She asked if I had a moment and I showed her into the kitchen (such as it was). The children were busy at their school work in the light of the Petromax and stew bubbled on the wood cookstove. The lady introduced herself as Sister Dolores, a nun with the local mission. As Sister Dolores and I visited, she explained the reason for her visit. The mission Sister Dolores served sponsored a needy family every Christmas. They put together food baskets and gifts and did their best to brightened an otherwise cloudy holiday for a family in need. I was immediately taken. I told her we would love to help. What did they need? How could we make a difference? She looked at me for a moment with a puzzled expression. Turning toward me she said, "Dear, you are the family we wanted to help".
I couldn't believe my ears. Never, in a million years would I have considered my family "needy". We had a roof over our heads, food in our tummies and a warm place to sleep at night. Our family was whole. My husband had a job. We had family that loved and supported us. We wanted for nothing. Stammering, I told Sister Delores that we couldn't possibly accept their generous charity. There must be someone out there that was truly needy. Disappointed, she shook her head. "We haven't been able to find a needy family that hasn't already taken advantage of every social program available" she said. "We thought we had finally found a family that would really appreciate help. We thought we would really be able to make a difference. Many people have asked for assistance but they already take advantage of commodities, food stamps and subsidized housing - what can we offer them?".
I apologized to Sister Delores for not being able to accept her generosity and offered to help in any way we could in the event they found another family to bless. When she left I took a moment to reflect on our conversation. I was humiliated. How could people think that we were needy? My pride was wounded. I was humbled. But that was just the beginning.
As we prepared for Christmas, an awful truth came to light. We had no money. We were able to meet our obligations and feed our family (if meagerly) but we certainly had no extra money to spend on gifts. Now, I had been raised in a Christian household. I knew the true meaning of Christmas. I knew (in my head) that it wasn't about gifts or boxes or bags, it was about celebrating the birth of Christ, but my pride got in the way. I didn't want to show up at my folks empty handed. My brother and his wife would be there. They would have bought us presents. My parents would have gone all out. Sir Knight and I would have nothing to offer.
Truth be told, Sir Knight and I didn't want to make the trip over the river and through the woods to grandmothers house. We were embarrassed. We could skip the family gathering this year - right? Nobody would really miss us. But, then, there were the children. How would we explain to them that we weren't going to Grandma and Grandpa's? How could we face them on Christmas morning with nary an orange in their stocking?
We determined that we would have to come up with something. We started to put together baskets with things we could make. Hot Cocoa powder, Russian Tea mix, homemade soap and tea cozies filled the baskets, along with some homemade cookies and candy. We made up two baskets, one for my parents and one for my brother and sister-in-law. They were pitiful and small and I was embarrassed. Wanting to do a little something more, Sir Knight picked out a range finder that he had bought when we were flush and wrapped it for my dad. I chose my favorite candlesticks to give to my mom.
We sang as we drove, heralding our Saviors birth. Knowing that we didn't have one gift for any of our children was sobering, but we chose to make the best out of the situation. As we unloaded our car, I wanted to hide our meager offerings. My pride kept getting in the way.
Christmas morning arrived. The children never realized that we hadn't gotten them anything. They were thrilled to be at grandma and grandpa's house, reveling in Christmas. We sang "Happy Birthday" to Jesus, attacked our stockings with a vigor and snuggled on the couch eating chocolate snowmen way too early in the morning. Finally, it was time to open presents. Gifts were passed out, one by one bringing delight to the recipient. Dad was thrilled with his range finder (I suspect that he knew Sir Knight had given his own treasure) and Mom loved her candlesticks. Although I did my best to hide our gift baskets, they were eventually uncovered. First, my sister-in-law took possession of hers. She pulled each item out, oohed and aahed and told us how wonderful they were. "I could never make soap" and "You really make your own Hot Cocoa?". My mom, too, lauded our efforts. "I love the basket you picked out, Enola. It will be perfect to hold kindling next to the fireplace". "Oh, you made my favorite candy. You know I never could make this as well as you". My embarrassment began to fade as the light of truth began to dawn. We were loved not because of the things we could buy or the way we could contribute. That was my pride talking. The reality is, nobody cared what we did or didn't buy. They cared only that we were there. It was that simple.
I have learned that what we did the first year we lived here was appropriate. We didn't have any money. It would have been inappropriate for us to have gone out and spent a lot of money. We gave what we had. And that was right.
I thought we had to have presents to celebrate Christmas. I was wrong. We just had to be willing to humble ourselves - only when we humbled ourselves were we able to be embraced in the love of family. And so it is with God. We don't have to present ourselves as perfect, we just have to humble ourselves and bend our knee.