It is with a light and joyous heart that I write, this evening before Christmas Eve. While many are bustling about getting the last minute gift for Uncle George or Cousin Sara, I am sitting quietly at my desk with the wind howling at the window panes. Tonight will be special.
Two of three of my adult children will be visiting after a long evening of Christmas Caroling, with the kids, in the cold blowing windstorm outside. I have prepared a large pot of hot chocolate, cookies and savory treats to warm their bellies upon their arrival. After a long day of preparation, I look forward to seeing their smiles come through the door, wishing all a Merry Christmas.
Our family chose this night to celebrate Christmas, as this was the only night we could actually BE with each other and enjoy our private time before the big family gathering. This time with my children and, now their spouses and children, has always been special. I was deeply influenced by one woman in my life who was very special to me. My former mother-in-law, Evelyn (Also known as Grandma ET). She showed me the true meaning of Christmas, and that no one ever had to go without a gift no matter how poor one became.
Evelyn was divorced from her husband for many years and lived with her best friend, Bettye. They didn’t have much in the way of things, but had a wonderful, happy life that meant something to them.
One Christmas, my husband and I came home to be with our families. It was important to us, because we had been away for a long time and missed everyone. We felt a bit inadequate, as we didn’t have enough to buy presents for anyone except our one year old. It was really a difficult time, as we were always “givers,” no matter the circumstance.
We walked into Evelyn’s modest mobile home on “the mountain” (as she called it) on Christmas Day in 1979. She had it decked from one end to the other with Christmas decorations, holly, poinsettias, ho-ho-ing Santas, and -of course- the mistletoe. She even made sure each pet (she had about 8 cats and 2 dogs in) received a gift for Christmas- that is how much she loved Christmas! But this Christmas was different. She and Bettye also had a bad financial year, as did the other two adult children.
We were ready to feast on the interesting combination of food that she always offered when we visited. Macaroni salad, potato salad, bread, cake, cookies, candy, etc. It was a carb-fest, but nonetheless so enjoyable! As we stepped into the kitchen, ready to dig in, Evelyn beckoned us to the living room. She said, We are all going to sit down and exchange Christmas presents.” My husband and I looked at each other in surprise. “But, Mom, we have no presents to give this year.” She smiled with her large open grin, “Well, this year will not be different than any other year. We have presents!” We were puzzled, because unless she hit the big one on the lottery, there was no way she could have afforded gifts for everyone.
We sat down on the worn sofa and folding chairs or pulled up a space on the rug. She and Bettye carefully brought out a paper bag and set it down in front of them. She stood up and announced, “Now, here’s what we are going to do. I have bought a gift for each one of you that pertains to something I know about you. Don’t get too excited, though. These gifts were only a dollar each. I am going to start, but as we pass the bag please pull out a gift and take it to the person whose name is on the gift and say ‘Merry Christmas.'” She began the ritual. Each person, even the grandkids, took time for each person to grab a gift from the bag and take it to the recipient, say Merry Christmas, and watch them open it. It was a very emotional ritual, but very happy and grounding.
I was so moved by Evelyn’s generosity and thoughtfulness, that I don’t even remember what I received. It wasn’t about the gift. It was about being there, in the here and now, with those that we love the most; and, when we had nothing to give but our nothingness. She made Christmas happen even at her darkest moments. Evelyn stood grounded and constant in her belief to give no matter how small it may have looked to others. She had inspired my new standard for Christmas. About 17 years later, she died of cancer. I visited her funeral, even though her son and I had been divorced for 7 years. I was moved by the small visitation, but in my heart I knew she was bigger than life and, for her, it didn’t matter who knew it.
So, on this night of the howling winds and people rushing about, I will be carrying Evelyn’s traditional torch. No one goes away empty handed; and, that being in the here and now with our family and, those who matter to us, is what is most important during these times of celebration and throughout the year.
Sweet peace to Evelyn, my dear friend and inspiration.
May you find the peace in your heart that speaks to your soul
during this season of giving!