The best Christmas we ever had was the Christmas when we had nothing.
A series of events during a difficult year led to that best Christmas. In early April I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A rush of doctor visits, a surgery, and months of recovery led to an extended period of time away from my work. As Thanksgiving approached I was still too weak and sick to return to work.
My husband was unexpectedly laid off from his job in July when the company he worked for was sold and operations were moved out of the country.
We had worked and saved for years, so we were not hurting. But as the months passed with our situation stagnant with no money coming in and a steady stream of medical bills eating at our savings it became very clear that Christmas as we had always known it would be very different.
If this kind of thing had happened when our children were small I’m not sure how we would have dealt with it. But with one married, another away at college and two still in high school we had survived “different” before.
But Christmas had always been Christmas.
Around Halloween my husband would work nights and weekends making our house the most epic display in the neighborhood. And I would spend September forward scheming, planning, shopping, wrapping and shipping. Usually our Thanksgiving weekend was spent transforming our home into a Christmas wonderland.
But this year, with money tight and energy sapped, I feared our Christmas spirit would take a year off. In fact, the very thought of Christmas depressed me. The mixture of our circumstances left me feeling weary, guilty, ashamed and even grumpy.
In other words, I was ripe for the lessons of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Lesson #1 came from a Boy Scout. We received a knock at the door one night from a 15 year old boy working on his Eagle Scout project. He was working to provide Christmas for a local senior center and he was gathering donations.
We felt hard pressed to help in any way. But as my husband worked with the boy he learned that one of his goals, if he had the time and the help, was to decorate the center inside and out for Christmas. Before long my husband had the garage door open and they were drawing a lighting plan right there on the side of a box.
For the next several days my husband spent his evening on ladders and stringing power cords with the help of this boy and other scouts from his group. I went on a rainy late November evening to take my husband a sandwich – and that is when my Christmas changed, too.
Even though it was dark and wet and cold outside one of the residents insisted on watching the progress of the lights from her wheelchair. Her name was Elsie.
Elsie chatted with me for more than an hour, peppering me with questions about my family, my medical situation, and my plans for Christmas. I had never met a person like her before. She was bright, cheery and so very positive. Talking to her was the best medication my heart had received that year.
Like most residents at the center she had few family members coming to visit her. I learned later she really only had a sister who lived over a hundred miles away who would come in occasionally. But being Elsie, she made the people at the center her family. She knew everyone and everything about them.
I sometimes call her my ghost of Christmas past. Elsie would regale me with tales of things from the old days in how they celebrated Christmas. As a child of the Great Depression Elsie had Christmases with nothing – meaning they invented their fun and celebrations with the stuff they had.
Elsie had a keen interest in the Boy Scout project at the center. I finally decided that the reason she was outside watching them put up the lights in the rain was because she wanted to be involved. I spoke to my husband’s new boy scout friend about it later that night. After speaking to the manager at the center he approached Elsie to be in charge of managing the decorations on the inside.
Elsie was thrilled. She grabbed at my arm when she was invited into a meeting and laughed that we would have “so much fun” decorating the place together. She just assumed I would be in on it and I cannot thank her enough for including me.
She pulled together a “committee” of four women and two men from among the residents. She knew them all but I was pretty dubious from the outset. One of the men was completely blind and the other was so hard of hearing he insisted that everyone shout so he could know what was happening. One of the ladies was about as mean as any Grinch could be. All of them, except for Elsie, seemed to look upon the whole thing as a big inconvenience.
I tried telling Elsie after that first meeting that maybe it would be better if she and I worked alone. She said, very wisely, “you don’t do these Christmas things alone – ever!”
Elsie had big plans in her head. She wanted a Christmas tree, with lights, in every room. There were nearly 60 rooms in the facility and more than 70 residents. She wanted music, too. And to top things off she wanted a big Christmas party.
There was no budget, no help, and no resources at the center to pull this off. In my small thinking I was considering bringing our Christmas tree from home to put into their dining room, the one space in the center the residents seemed to do everything.
But Elsie had something more than plans or money or resources. She had friends. And she used me to contact them and gather things together. She planned her party for December 23rd.
The first thing Elsie did was send me to Fritz. Fritz was the son of another resident who ran a hardware store about a mile away. “You go tell Fritz we are having a Christmas party here on December 23rd,” Elsie said. “And you tell him that we are putting money together from our social security checks to buy a tree for every room in this place.”
I was aghast. “Elsie!” I said. “You’re not really going to do that! How can you ask these people here to do that?”
She laughed at me. “Just tell Fritz exactly that.”
So I visited Fritz. Turns out Fritz had a big lot with Christmas trees right next to his hardware store. When I told him exactly what Elsie told me to say Fritz got all red, shook his head of white hair and said, “If you can talk to the choir lady at Kennedy High to get the kids from her groups to come sing on December 23rd I’ll get more trees than they can decorate.”
I was amazed. But I did just what I was told. I went to the high school, found out who the choir teacher was, and she was thrilled to volunteer two groups to come to the center on December 23rd to sing and to decorate Christmas trees. “You need to talk to Mr. Baldwin,” she told me. “He’s the baseball coach and the driver’s ed teacher. He can likely round up some lights and decorations.”
I didn’t know how she knew this but I did what I was told and talked to Mr. Baldwin. If ever there was a man who looked and acted like Santa Claus, it was Mr. Baldwin. He sat at his desk with his glasses teetering on the end of his nose as he scribbled notes furiously. “How many trees?” he asked. “And what about presents? Do we need presents?”
I returned to Elsie to report of my arrangements with Fritz, the choir teacher and Mr. Baldwin. Elsie only nodded in acknowledgement. “Good,” she said. “Now let’s arrange for food.”
At the next committee meeting she had one of the ladies – Agnes was her name – call her granddaughter, who ran a preschool. “Agnes, you tell your granddaughter to invite the kids and their families here to meet Santa Claus on December 23rd. Let’s see if they want to do that.” Agnes asked for the phone and called right there in the meeting. She had no problem getting the kids to come.
“Thank you,” Elsie said. Turning to Robert, our blind resident, she said. “Robert, you get to be Santa this year. Do you have a suit?”
Robert said of course he didn’t have a suit. “Santa is not blind!” he shouted. “Can’t we get that feller from the high school to do it?” Elsie smiled that smile I was learning she always got when a plan came together. Turning me to me, she said, “Did you say he looked like Santa Claus?”
So I went back to Mr. Baldwin. But the minute I brought up the suggestion that he play Santa he shook his head. “Don’t they have someone there that could do it?” he asked. So I told him about Robert and the fact that he was blind. “That won’t work,” Mr. Baldwin said. “Okay, I’ll do it.” I asked him if he needed a suit and sheepishly he said no, that he had one.
Little by little the details all came together. By the middle of December the lights were up and the center was decorated from front to back with festive hand made things in red, green, white and gold. Every day seemed to bring something new. Fritz delivered the trees about a half dozen at a time over a week’s time. From nowhere kids from the school or from the Boy Scouts showed up in the late afternoon to string lights and help residents to hang ornaments and garland.
Day by day I witnessed Elsie’s “Christmas committee”, as she called them, grow in energy, enthusiasm and Spirit. Each of them who had started their involvement with something of an attitude seemed to transform in front of my very eyes.
It changed me too. I still didn’t feel very well but the thought of missing something new was too much for me to bear. I dressed and went down to the center every day, checking on Elsie and whatever was coming for the day. With each passing day I felt more and more of the Christmas spirit.
I was there one day during dinner time. Mrs. Christiansen, another resident on the Christmas committee, suggested that the residents sing Jingle Bells as part of the party to signal to Santa to come into the room for the kids. She led them in a not-so-rousing rehearsal of the song.
“I can’t remember the words,” said one elderly lady. “Fake it, Gladys!” was a reply from the back of the room from a man who previously had never said a word. I seriously thought he didn’t even talk. But Christmas, I learned, seemed to be bringing everyone out of their shell.
Then came a moment I will never in my life forget.
Mr. Hastings, a gentleman who had been at the center for more than a decade, struggled to his feet and stood before the group while leaning on his walker. The room came to a dead silence as he spoke. “I see all that is happening for us this Christmas and I am very grateful. But I feel we are missing Christmas altogether if we don’t give something to the less fortunate. What can we do?”
The room remained silent. I saw a few heads nodding in agreement. But nobody said anything. Finally, Elsie shouted, “I have an idea! Donnie, get me the phone.” Donnie was an aide and he quickly brought Elsie a phone.
Right there in front of the silent room Elsie dialed the phone. She was calling Paul, the boy scout who first came to our house weeks before. “Hi Paul,” Elsie said. “This is Elsie. We have been talking as a family here at the center and we want to help someone this Christmas. Do you know of anyone who can use some help?”
Of course, we couldn’t hear Paul’s side of the conversation. But knowing his cherubic face I could imagine the wonder he was feeling as Elsie made this phone call. We had become fond of Paul in the few weeks we knew him. He was a bright and sensitive young man. I knew he wouldn’t know what to do with Elsie’s request – but I knew he wouldn’t let it go either.
Elsie thanked him and hung up. “Okay,” she announced to the group, “Let’s meet tomorrow at this same time and see what Paul comes up with”.
A little worried, I called Paul the minute I got home from the center. He said he had talked to one of his leaders at Scouts and they discussed options. As a last minute, unplanned part of his Eagle project Paul would have the residents of the center copy flyers, make phone calls, and direct volunteers to go door to door collecting food for a local pantry.
He called the food pantry and they were in critical need of seasonal donations. They were grateful for the help and offered to help find volunteers who could help the residents of the senior center do what they wanted to do.
Within 48 hours the arrangements fell into place. On December 22nd the residents used donated cell phones and the copier at the center to make calls and organize groups with flyers to go door to door. Between the scouts, a local church and two local schools more than 90 volunteers converged on the center and spent three hours getting out more than 2000 flyers asking for simple donations of canned foods to be dropped off or picked up the next day.
December 23rd arrived and it was a miracle. So much food arrived it took four trucks two loads each to deliver it to the food pantry. Word had reached a local television station and they covered the food drive during their lunchtime broadcast, interviewing Mr. Hastings.
Live on television the residents were shown enthusiastically singing Jingle Bells – and nobody forgot the words. Santa was wildly received by the kids and every resident of the center was filled with love and light.
My Christmas season of discontent had totally dissolved in my weeks of involvement at the senior center. I hadn’t spent a dime. I had not bought anything or wrapped a present or watched a movie or baked a thing. Other than the work on the lights my husband did there was nothing usual about this Christmas at all.
Christmas at our home never really came together as we usually had it. After the party at the senior center our teenagers quickly put up our tree and in front of it we spent a late Christmas morning looking at old photos and laughing together.
We proudly attended Paul’s Eagle Scout ceremony weeks later and spoke on his behalf before the review board. It was a Christmas I will never forget – and one I hope to repeat for many Christmases to come. The glow of that Christmas survived for weeks.
My ghost of Christmas past taught me that Christmas giving is really more about having an idea and putting it in to action by just asking and talking to people with a smile and a twinkle in the eye.
Others taught me that just forgetting about themselves to serve others is really what Christmas is all about.
This true story of Christmas was contributed to My Merry Christmas by Sharon Tomlinson.