|Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash|
What truly makes the holidays special? Jo March in the classic Little Women says that "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," but is that really true? Jo might be forgiven for that feeling when you realize that she and her sisters were giving up so much else that might have made their Christmas merry: their father was away serving in the Army during the Civil War, and they barely had money for everyday needs such as food, heat, and clothing, let alone anything special for a holiday.
Do you know of anyone in a similar situation? A family with a parent on active duty somewhere in a dangerous part of the world? Someone out of a job (or working two or more low-paying jobs) and struggling to buy groceries, coats, boots, or to pay for light and heat? Perhaps you know someone dealing with health issues and doctor's bills, or unreliable transportation and large auto repair bills.
To a family in any of those circumstances, Christmas may not feel like Christmas at all, whether or not there are any presents. In fact, Christmas may seem like the darkest, most dreary day of the year, because their situation contrasts so strongly with what the day is "supposed to be."
It may be a time that makes them feel particularly deprived and hopeless.
My 22-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and is currently experiencing increasing symptoms in a flare-up that has gone on for almost a month now. She and her parents are trying to put a very brave face on, but this diagnosis is devastating.
I don't want to deliver platitudes or pat answers, but I do want to show support and love. No trinket is going to do that. No carefully wrapped item from an upscale magazine's holiday gift list is going to do that. Probably no beautifully sung, heartfelt rendition of "Oh Holy Night" is going to do that. Those things are for the comfortable. They're for people who already have everything they need -- and so maybe they're not necessary at all.
What can I offer? My prayers. A kind word. A long hug. Perhaps a listening ear. My presence, even if it's at the end of a phone line. They won't ask for help with medical bills, although there must be many.
What else? I can donate to research that hopes to reverse symptoms and find a cure.
If we actually see them during the holidays, maybe it would be good to try to have as normal an interaction as possible. To play cards, and tell jokes and stories, and definitely not to grill them about symptoms and treatments. To give them a bit of respite from what's going on -- unless they bring up the subject of MS and seem to want to talk about it.
What would you do?
In the meantime, it's easy to drop some coins into the Salvation Army kettle. It's easy to help your elderly neighbor by clearing some snow, or the last of the leaves, or by offering a ride to church on Christmas Eve so she doesn't have to drive in darkness. It's easy to put an unwrapped toy or two in the Toys for Tots bin, or to donate online. It's easy to donate the coats you no longer need. It's easy to go caroling in a care home or a hospital. It's easy to drop off a bag or two of canned goods at your local food closet.
Pick one or two or more of those ideas and do them. I guarantee it will be joyful and life-affirming for you, and of course to those who benefit from your actions.
Do you think it's possible we could celebrate a wonderful Christmas without any gifts, without Secret Santa exchanges, without crowds at the mall, without online click-to-ship? Maybe we'd still enjoy lots of festive music, maybe a tree and some bright lights, and certainly plenty of time to visit and play. Maybe we'd still give a few toys to the young children in our lives, but otherwise our only giving would be to those who really need it.
It wouldn't be crazy-making or debt-creating, and it wouldn't add to guilt or stress. It would simply be a joyful celebration of the season.
It just might be the best Christmas ever.