We all know Christmas is more about giving than receiving, yet the most significant Christmases of all for me are those where through giving I received more than I can describe or explain. There is a magical truth in the simple fact that there is no truly unselfish gift. People who give are the first to admit that they give because of the joy, thrill, and/or satisfaction they receive. It is in pleasing others, doing something meaningful and kind, that (for me) the true meaning of Christmas comes shining through. I didn’t always understand this, but I can point to a turning point in my life where the kindness of a whole community of people produced a minor miracle.
In college I was part of a tight-knit cluster of seven people — Dave and Lisa, Steve, Everett and Brenda, Stacy, and myself — who spent a lot of time together and were as close as any family. We were different ages and from very different backgrounds, but all of us found deep connection with one another. We were all college kids, scraping by, but generally having a great time — until Brenda contracted a viral infection that put her in and out of the hospital for much of 1979. Everett and Brenda were a sweet couple that both escaped difficult homes as children and by God’s grace found each other. Everett’s parents died when he was a toddler, and he spent his life going from one foster family to another. He never laid down roots, and as an adult had no family to speak of. Brenda came from an abusive home — her father died when she was a teenager and she was estranged from her mom. Neither she nor Everett had siblings — they basically had each other, and three beautiful daughters, ages six, four and three. Everett was a pre-med student, deep in debt with student loans, and working two jobs just to stay in school. Only a year away from graduation, the loss of Brenda’s income and the mounting medical bills made it unlikely that Everett would be able to finish school. In early October, Everett lost the higher paying of his two jobs, and their situation got desperate. Over the course of a couple months, they sold everything not nailed down — stereo, television, car, furniture, books — all to be able to subsist on tomato soup and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Their home was a sofa, a table and chairs, a few clothes and toys for the kids and Everett’s typewriter and textbooks.
One evening, early in December the remaining five of us were at the church, when Brenda came in sobbing. She told us that Everett had completely lost his cool and screamed at the girls that there wasn’t going to be Christmas this year and that he didn’t want to hear anything about it. There was no Christmas, no Santa, no parties, no presents, that Christmas was cancelled this year. He ranted and raved scared the girls and Brenda so badly that they left and went to a neighbor’s house, where it took hours to get the girls to settle down. Brenda left the girls with the neighbor and came looking for us. She said she didn’t know how much longer they could survive the stress and unhappiness. We consoled her as best we could, and she finally left to get the girls to take them home. The five of us sat in a funk, wanting to do something, but overwhelmed at the immensity of all Everett and Brenda’s problems. It felt like there was nothing we could do to help, but as we talked, it became clear that while we couldn’t solve all their problems, there was one thing we could do: give them Christmas.
We began plotting and planning. Dave and Lisa would give them a television, and I would give them my stereo, Steve and Stacy were going to get a tree and decorations. We would put the word out about the need for some furniture and we would take up a collection at the church to buy gifts for the girls. We would ask different groups if they would buy groceries and holiday goodies. We asked Everett’s favorite professor if he would invite Everett and Brenda and the girls over the Sunday before Christmas so that we could fill up their apartment and decorate. Our excitement and energy was contagious — people bent over backwards to help us. Then, it shifted from a kind act to a minor miracle.
Every time one of us would show up at the church, someone would shove an envelope full of cash into our hands. People brought food by the bushel, and began baking treats. We got enough cash to buy the girls wonderful gifts and to buy Brenda and Everett a new television and stereo. The UMW knitted sweater, hat and glove sets for the girls. One morning I got a phone call. One of the pillars of the church heard what we were doing and she said, “How much is Everett’s tuition? I want to pay it so he can stay in school.” One of the Sunday school classes called and asked, “How much are the outstanding doctor bills? Our class wants to cover them.” Other groups banded together to get Everett a used car. When we showed up to decorate the house on the Sunday before Christmas, thirty-five people from the church were there waiting for us.
We decorated the inside of the house, the outside of the house, and half of the apartment courtyard. We put up a tree and surrounded it with gifts. We filled the cabinets and refrigerator with food, and there was so much left over that if covered the countertops and table. We decided it was much too much food, so we stayed to have a party. Some folks started baking cookies and filled the house with that wonderful aroma. We had Christmas music playing on the new stereo, when the front door opened and Everett, Brenda and the girls came in. The girls faces broke into the most openly joyful expressions I have ever seen. Brenda stood with her hands clasped in front of the face, tears in her eyes. And Everett, a big hulking guy who seldom showed emotion, stood stunned with tears rolling down his cheeks. Everyone in the room cheered, but Everett’s oldest daughter, seeing her daddy cry, came over to him, concerned, and asked, “What’s the matter?” Everett picked her up and said, “Nothing’s wrong, baby. I was wrong. I was wrong about Christmas, and I was wrong about Santa. And I forgot all about Jesus. I also forgot what good friends we have. Merry Christmas, baby.”
This is my “Christmas movie” moment. Christmas movies are sappy and sweet and they work out in ways that real life seldom does. But in this case, real life was better than any movie. A spirit of generosity swept through an ever-expanding circle of people to achieve a miracle — to save a small family on the brink. Not one of us could have done it alone, but together we were able to achieve more than seemed possible. There was never a question of what we would do, only how — and as we expanded the circle to include more and more people, an amazing thing happened.
Everett and Brenda are two of the kindest people I have ever known. They have adopted five additional children, and one of the high points of their family time each year is Christmas. They are generous to others and pillars of their church. They have given back so much more than they ever received, and they stand in my life as a symbol of the transformative power of generosity and what it means to truly LIVE in the spirit of Christmas. I have received many wonderful gifts in my life, but none greater than the gift of giving in community to a family we loved and so keenly wanted to help.