With three children I cannot help but look around me to feel overwhelmed—the children’s rooms are regularly strewn with books, dolls, Barbie Shoes and accessories, and matchbox cars. I cannot walk down the hallway without squealing out from stepping on yet another Lego that was apparently not needed for my son’s latest creation. Their bikes and scooters lay throughout the yard in a kind of wheeled graveyard, leading my husband to his regular comment of “They don’t appreciate anything.” Do they? In this generation where so many of our children’s wants and needs are met, immediately, do they appreciate what they have? As I look at the remnants of Christmas’ past I cannot help but think we do not NEED a single thing. Have I created greedy children who cannot embrace the meaning of this season because they have become as fixated on their lists as I have? I have no doubt we spend many times more on our children today than past generations of parents did but I do not know that meant we had fewer wishes. I remember my excitement when my mom’s big fat Sears catalog would arrive. I quickly ran for a pen and laid on the floor circling the toys I most wanted to see under the tree on Christmas morning but I turned out o.k., right?
As an adult I have always wanted to give back at Christmas time and have tried to include our children. In the year after our 2nd adoption a need was expressed for a birth family that otherwise would not be able to have Christmas. Though my children were too young to understand what we were doing, we filled every need—from men’s clothes to a flat iron and toys and baby things for children they were already parenting. My two oldest were 2 years old and 11 months old but I wanted them to have a heritage of giving. When my children were in pre-school their school participated in the OPERATION CHRISTMAS CHILD program. Each year we would gather some of the green and red boxes on our way out of school and carefully pack the box with things the child may want or need inside. Many times as we shopped or packed the box my children’s little hands would grab onto one of the items, and quickly explain why they, themselves “needed” it. Enter the conversation about children in need...children who may not have anything of their own. ..children who do not have what we do. We have discussed the “true meaning of the season” and how much better it feels to give than to receive…I have repeated these same things every year but are they falling on deaf ears? In the years since, we have chosen children from the angel tree at church and continued to give to other organizations, as well. I have involved the children in shopping and wrapping the gifts but continue to wonder if they “get it”.
A few weeks ago a paper came home in my daughter’s school folder with information about their angel tree for children in need. I was surprised at how many times she asked me if we could choose one of the ornaments to be returned with the item requested. “Of course!” I told her—so proud that SHE had taken the lead on giving to others this year. While my husband and I were at parent-teacher conferences I used my time between classrooms perusing the ornaments on the giving tree. As I turned each over, looking for one for a little girl close to my daughter’s age for her to give to, my heart was breaking. THIS was a list I wish I could fill…fill with EVERY item. I removed an ornament from the tree that read: 13 year old girl, art set. While the girl is older than my daughter, they seem to share a love for art—perfect! While my older son, who attends the same school, had not expressed an interest in an ornament I decided I would also choose an ornament for him and for my younger child. Two more ornaments: 6 year old boy, shoes and socks and 9 year old boy, shirts went into my purse. While I still had the shopping to do, I felt better knowing that those 3 ornaments were safely with me and those needs would be met. NEEDS. Shoes for a 6 year old and a shirt for a 9 year old, I don’t know that those are the WANTS of those children, but at least we could provide these needs.
Soon after, we were purchasing some supplies for a school project at a local hobby store and my daughter and I found a 130 piece art set. When we arrived at home she excitedly asked me if she could wrap the gift and write a note to the child on the wrapping. “No, honey—they want us to return the gift unwrapped.” I explained. “Does Santa need it to put under her tree? Does Santa bring her other things?” she asked. “Can I just write her a letter to go with it?” I explained that we were like “secret santas” and that was a very special way to do things. It means we are doing it to help someone without getting any credit for it or expecting anything in return. That seemed to do it. My older son still had not mentioned the ornament I chose for him.
As I was tucking my son in on Thanksgiving night, I finished telling him the story of my adoption day and turned the conversation to our angel tree child. “Do you want to get the shirts your angel tree child needs from Old Navy this week?” I asked. He paused for a minute, “I was thinking I would like to get him Abercrombie or Aeropostale” he replied. Of course he wants Abercrombie or Aeropostale, I thought. That is the “norm for him”—maybe we are too spoiled…but what he said next surprised me. “I wanted to get him something that will make him feel special. If he does not have a lot, he probably does not have anything like that. He probably sees other people wear things like that and if I could just give that to him he might feel like he is like everyone else. Because he is.” My sweet boys eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know why I am doing that” he said about those sweet tears welling in his eyes. “I am just so lucky. I have lots of nice clothes to wear, a great house, lots of toys. I just really want him to have that. Can we get more than one shirt? Can we take all the ornaments from the tree?” I looked at my son, heart full…so proud of this sweet boy he asked, “Will Santa bring the children on the angel tree presents? Ask Elfie (our Elf on the Shelf)!” When I did not reply as fast as he thought I should he said, “I am going to ask santa to take a present off of my list and give it to him (the angel tree child) instead.” Holding back tears of my own I told him that was so thoughtful and wished him sweet dreams. “I know he will do it,” he said as I was closing his door, “Santa is the most generous and giving person there is!” My darling oldest child, who I actually thought had been holding back any truths he felt about Santa to ensure he would still come, in fact did believe. He believes in giving. He believes in helping others and even at his age is willing to give up gifts of his own to make it happen. The next day, on our mantel, it was not a list of WANTS for my children taped to the wood, but a note that read, “to santa- could I give up one of my gifts and give it to a homeless-needy child? Please respond.”
In the following days we shopped for our other two angel children. My oldest carefully choosing 3 shirts, rather than just the one listed on the ornament, that he thought would make that boy feel special. Knowing we could not wrap the gifts for the 3 children that we do not have a name for, just an age, a number and a wish, my children carefully tied each with a big red ribbon and attached the ornament. “I wish we could be there when they get their presents” they said. And here in lies the joy…it truly is in the giving—even when, and maybe especially when it is someone you do not know.
I don’t know if Santa will visit those sweet children whose wants and needs hung on that angel tree, but I do know that they will get what was on their ornament and just a little bit more this year. I have no doubt that my children will have more than they need under our tree on Christmas morning (and continue to tell me what is on their list right up to the last minute)—but as I watch them open all those toys that I know will soon be strung through my hallways and their bedroom floors—I will do it knowing that they have already received the greatest gift, without even realizing it—the gift of the true spirit of Christmas—the purity of giving without motive or reciprocation. This is without a doubt one of the most important things I can “check” on my list! þþþ I do have that feeling of accomplishment though they did not come from me-- these checkmarks came from the love of my own children’s hearts.
I hope you will take the opportunity to give this GIFT to your children this year, whether it is an angel tree, a shoe box, a blanket for children in foster care (www.movb.org) or even helping a senior citizen in your neighborhood. We can give them all the toys on their list but it is this true gift of giving that they will carry with them throughout their lives!