I recently saw the advert on TV for the Coca Cola Christmas Truck. So it’s official – ‘holidays are coming’.
Aside from the bajillion other Christmas-themed adverts which are now everywhere, and the piles of delectable foodstuffs and gifts and wrapping paper and Santas and snowmen and Christmas cards and red-and-green-sparkly-everything, which has begun to bulge the aisles of nearly every shop I enter, it’s now utterly unavoidable – Christmas is well and truly on the way.
Therefore it stands to reason that I’ve had to focus on that thing which crops up every year – eventually put together after a long time thinking and browsing amazon (or trying to recall the items I thought of through the preceding months and mentally tagged with an “I know, I’ll ask for it for Christmas”), then sent around to family in the hopes that they’ll fulfil my wishes for more stuff – The Christmas List.
Only this year, after a short heart-search and a good dose of conviction, it’s really short:
There’s nothing I need.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure that if I went through the usual process, I could come up with a bunch of things I’d enjoy – books and shoes and sweets and games and things which light up or sparkle – but this year my heart’s in a different place.
It’s with the people I met last Christmas.
A year ago, I was in an awful, panicking, desolate place. Our expectations of having our first family Christmas at home with our new baby were shattered by the double-whammy of two miscarriages and a subsequent diagnosis of primary infertility for Husby. I was in pieces and couldn’t even bring myself to decorate. Our presents were sent out after Christmas, and we barely scraped ourselves together in time to send cards. I couldn’t go into shops, and listening to Christmas songs on the radio made me cry bitter, heartbroken tears of resentment for the juxtaposition of what was versus what ‘should have been’.
I decided that I couldn’t spend Christmas day at home, or at the home of anyone who was ‘doing’ Christmas, so instead we would go to a local homeless shelter and serve Christmas dinner and hand out presents and (well-faked) holiday spirit, and take the opportunity to work out our pain (well, mine) by making Good Things happen for other people. Husby, bless his heart, went along with the whole thing for my sake.
It wasn’t a particularly noble thing, though the outcome was good – it was a convenient escape. I spent the day smiling on the outside, with agony in my heart, but gradually the doing of Good Things worked its magic, and seeing people who otherwise would have been hungry and cold and lonely, well-fed, warm, enjoying themselves and spending time with other people…it warmed my spirit and started to heal me.
Good for me, right?
Wrong – it’s proven to be a case of ‘can open, worms everywhere’ – because that experience; the unpalatable things I learned about homelessness, the people I interacted with, the smiles I shared and the delight I discovered in ‘giving up’ my Christmas for the sake of a section of society most usually ignored and marginalised, allowed those people to step out from the margins and into the reality of my internal world.
They’ve stopped being ‘the homeless’ and have become ‘people’. Individuals with families, friends, complex emotional lives, challenges, triumphs, dreams, desires, regrets, stories…
They matter, and that’s left me with some uncomfortable and absolutely unavoidable knowledge:
They need a LOT.
In my mind, I looked around at my life and my wants and desires, and all I could see was abundance and plenty – the polar opposite to those people I met last year, for whom warm socks and toiletries were so important; for whom positive social interaction where they were treated as humans worthy of someone’s time and input was a treat, rather than a regular occurrence; for whom a few hours in a heated hall and a hot meal were a shining pinnacle of luxury.
I realised that if my heart was to rest easy within me on Christmas day, there was only one thing I could ask for: that instead of presents, my family and friends would send donations to charities which help these poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, and to beg their indulgence in allowing us to send them a token present* and donate the rest of the money we would have spent on them.
When I started explaining, my mum remarked “Oh, we were going to give you money towards your trip to America”, and I nearly wavered, because I do really, really want to be able to make that trip. But I couldn’t go back on what my heart was telling me – not even for that.
So this year, I hope that there will be decorations and maybe a small tree, and Christmas music, and family and friends and love and laughter and probably too much food…but when I look out of the window to the cold and the dark, and think of those people whose poverty deprives them of the wonderful celebratory experience I get to take for granted, I will know that at least I’ve done *something* to help.
I can’t think of a better gift.
I just want you to know that I’m not sharing this to try to preach or to say you shouldn’t enjoy your Christmas precisely how you want to. I’m not trying to portray myself as any kind of saintly person or paragon of any kind of virtue. All I want to do is raise a bit of awareness and share my own story; my own take on this matter of Christmas. If it speaks to your heart, then please do join in by finding a local charity which supports the homeless and making a donation to them.
*In the spirit of transparency: we’ll probably still get something bigger for Niece and Neff, because they’re not really old enough to understand the point of what we’re doing, and ‘Presents at Christmas’ is a Big Deal to little kids.
Transparency #2 – these are the charities we plan to donate to – Southampton City and Region Action To Combat Hardship; and Crisis. We’re also going back to the homeless shelter to serve food and join in the fun, but on boxing day this time, instead – just so you know I’m not all talk and no action.