Last Christmas Eve, I found a new tradition.
To shake off the crankiness of cookies gone wrong, of shopping and shipping and wrapping and frenzy, I took a long walk last December. And that's when I had a wonderful idea. What if, as Dr. Seuss said, Christmas does not come from a store? What if Christmas does mean just a little bit more? In fact, what if Christmas were just about giving?
I was in no position to give. I'd been unemployed for a year and my husband was starting to eye me the way healthy members of the Donner Party looked at stragglers. But my house overflowed with the clutter of Christmases past, and I was frightened by the specter of Christmas present and future. If I could put some reason back into the season, celebrating the birth of Christ might not require wrapping a mound of electronics made by children in China.
I wanted to give somebody an unexpected smile and let my heart be lighter than my wallet. But how? Buy candy, and hand it to strangers? Lottery tickets? No, in tough times, only dollars would do. Let someone who needed the cash decide how to spend it. So I went to the bank and took out some cash.
But where should I go to give it away? A bus stop? That's a likely place to find people who could use a smile, but stopping would be difficult in Christmas traffic. And I didn't want to hand out bills at random, I wanted to find one person who needed a happy surprise: I wanted a mom, with kids. Where was the best place to find a mom who needs money? My thoughts were as tangled as Christmas tree lights. Walking helps me sort them out, so I hit the trail behind our library.
A little fresh air, and... Aha! A great place to find a mom who needs money had to be...a thrift store! My friends with money shop in thrift stores all the time, but they would not be in one on Christmas Eve.
I pulled into the parking lot and put my money in my palm. As I scanned the aisles, I didn't see any moms with kids. I checked out the toy section, but it was empty. Some children waited patiently on faded plaid furniture while their parents shopped.
Should I hand the money to the kids? No, that would be creepy. Where were their mothers?
Ah, the kids clothing aisle. What a perfect place to find a mom who could use some cash: the kids clothing aisle at a thrift store on Christmas Eve. So I walked up to a woman who was flipping through a rack of tiny pajamas and said, "Excuse me." She was tall, with kind eyes. I held out my hand and said, "This is for you."
She looked at my palm, which was, I hate to admit, sweaty. "Merry Christmas," I said.
She looked into my face. "Why?"
And that really was the answer.
"Merry Christmas," she said, a big smile lighting up her face, and we hugged. I cried. And walked away with my heart several sizes larger.
Christmas is full of traditions; some have meaning only because we repeat them year after year. This is my new tradition, and it has all the meaning I need. Her happy question "Why?" wrapped my heart in the tightest hug it's ever had.
Last Christmas Eve, I knew why, and I know why I will do this every year on Christmas Eve. Because it all comes down to a mom and a baby; what happens next can change everything.
Andrea Gelfuso Goetz is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Denver.