Sunday, 20 December 2009

A Christmas Story

I realize that all my previous posts have attempted humor, yet I'm going to take a moment to share a less frivolous story from my childhood--a time when I discovered the meaning of Christmas. I wrote this story last year when I was asked to speak in church, so I'll share an excerpt from that with you:

The “Christmas Spirit” is an elusive thing. It is entwined in traditions and baking, decorating the house and wrapping gifts. While living in England, we embraced the novelty of having our children involved in Christmas Nativities at school. Another facet of Christmas was developed when I lived in Mexico where Navidad meant Posadas. Bright, colorful paper lanterns, piñatas, music, friends and plenty of wonderful food welcomed the coming of the Christ child. It was in Mexico that I had my first real Christmas experience. It’s one more layer of what Christmas means to me.

When I was 12 years old, our family moved to Mexico. My three sisters and I had to learn the language by listening, practicing and making mistakes that brought laughter to those with whom we were trying to converse. The first year, I couldn’t speak one word, however, by the second year, I could understand most everything, and by the third year, I could chat away with anyone.

During that third year, our last one in Mexico, my family came to know Elisa’s family. It was quite common in the late ‘70s to hire help and Elisa was a lady who lived nearby and would come by everyday to cook, clean, do laundry—whatever my mother needed. Elisa had a large family and her young husband would find employment as a construction worker, an abañil, the humblest and least paid vocations of the time. One day I visited Elisa’s home, located in a vacant lot very near our large, two story, five bedroom home. I had never seen anything like it. The entire house couldn’t have been bigger than 15’ x 15’. It had dirt floors and the walls and roof were corrugated tin. The family bed was in one corner while the wood burning stove was in another. I noticed some out-of-date advertisement posters from my father’s work used to insulate the interior from those thin metal walls. Despite the difficult conditions, her home was immaculate. The dirt floor was tamped down hard and swept clean, the bed was made, and their one dilapidated dresser held the entire families' clothes; there was no clutter anywhere.

In December of that year, my mother came to us and explained that Elisa’s husband had been out of work for quite some time. Her family was managing because of Elisa’s income as our housekeeper, however, there would be no presents that year from El Niño Dios, the Baby Jesus. Mom asked us if we would be willing to allocate some of our Christmas budget on buying gifts for Elisa’s family. We said we would, but selfishly, I suggested we shop at the discount store. Mom took us shopping and we picked out gifts for each of Elisa’s 6 or 7 children. I picked out a large plastic dump truck and to my eternal shame, I will always remember saying to my mother, “This is good enough for Pedro.” During our shopping spree, my mother also picked out something for Elisa and another small gift for her husband, an act I very much begrudged; after all, Christmas is for children, not adults and buying two more gifts for them was taking away from money that could be spent on me.

We took all our purchases home and wrapped them with bright paper, colorful bows and curly ribbon, carefully putting a tag on each so everyone would get their rightful gift. Mom explained we couldn’t very well ALL go to Elisa’s little home with the presents, so on Christmas Eve, she put the gifts in an ENORMOUS bag and then put some of my father’s shirts on top to hide the vividly covered packages. She drove to Elisa’s home and took the large bag inside, telling Elisa that she needed these things washed before Christmas. At first, Elisa didn’t realize that my mom was simply trying to sneak something past the children who were curiously peeping at their mamá's employer. She just respectfully murmured, “ Sí Señora.” Never once did she complain that it was late afternoon Christmas Eve, or point out that she didn’t have a washing machine and it would take hours to wash everything in that bag by hand. To clue her in, Mom moved away the shirts, allowing Elisa a glimpse at the gifts inside. Confusion gave way to gratitude and then to tears as Elisa cried, “I will have it done for Christmas Señora!” Mom left her there with the "laundry" and later that evening when all the children slept, dropped off a bicycle that my little sister had outgrown for one of Elisa’s daughters.

When my mother returned and shared the story with us, my heart was stricken with remorse. I wanted to go back immediately and buy nicer presents. I wanted to spend all my Christmas money so that Elisa’s children could have a stunning Christmas. Of course, it was everlastingly too late. That is when I learned what Christmas really means--sharing with others, blessing those around us without thought for oneself, losing ourselves in the service of others.

Each year since then, I relive that Christmas. When I begin the yearly foray into innumerable boxes of tinsel and holly, Pedro’s plastic truck reminds me to make sure that spirit of giving from the heart is part of our Christmas traditions.

David O. McKay declared: “True happiness comes only by making others happy—In short, the Christmas spirit is the Christ spirit, that makes our hearts glow in brotherly love and friendship and prompts us to kind deeds of service."

Please know that I am wishing the true spirit of the season to bless your lives. Merry Christmas, dearest ones.

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