Sunday, November 04, 2012

Holiday Lights

Starbucks has broken out the red coffee cups, so we're officially in the holiday season.  Don't like it? Feel free to stay in your house with the heat turned up, playing your "summer jams" playlist for a few more weeks.  But let's face it: the nights are getting longer, the days are getting colder, and we're entering that special season of the year once again.

No matter how you celebrate them, the holidays are different from the rest of the year.  People are more open, more willing to see the good in others, more receptive to the idea that miracles can happen.  Now, as we approach the darkest months of the year, we look for light.  Of course, for this very reason, the holidays are anything but "the most wonderful time of the year" for some, especially those who have lost loved ones or who find themselves in dire straits.  For the widower going through the first (or tenth) Christmas without his beloved wife, for the single mom who can't afford presents for her kids, this season brings desperate meaning to the phrase "Blue Christmas."

Happy or sad, in celebration or depression, this is the time when people wear their hearts on their sleeves, so this is the time to reach out to them.

This year, I want to challenge you, my friends and readers, to join me in making this season even more special for the people around us.  Let's make this a year that sticks out in people's minds as the year when their faith in humanity was restored.  Let's scrub the residue of an election season that seems to have lasted forever out of our minds and hearts and look at each other with fresh eyes: as people, not talking points.

What if this year, we all tried a little harder to make someone else's season bright?  What if, instead of buying a toy and dropping it in the Toys for Tots barrel or giving to a charity before the year-end tax deadline, we did a small kindness for a neighbor?  What if we went even further and did something extravagant for a stranger?  How can we make holiday memories that have the power to change lives?

In our house, we make a big deal about the holidays.  With our combination of Jewish and Christian traditions, my kids hit the holiday jackpot every December, getting 8 nights of Hanukkah as the lead-in to Christmas morning.  We love to celebrate our combined heritage, and we have always made it a point to share our joy with others through parties and gift-giving.  We've also made it a family tradition to reach out to our community, buying gifts for families who couldn't otherwise afford them.  We have more fun as a family going Christmas shopping for our "adopted families" than we do shopping for ourselves, and we look forward to it every year.  In recent years, though, we've started to ramp it up, looking for extravagant ways to bless other people during the holidays.

It started about 8 years ago with a DVD player.  We had adopted a family through the Salvation Army's Christmas gift drive, so we went shopping for two adults and two kids.  Their "gift" list was depressingly basic: soap, shampoo, toothbrushes for the kids.  Each kid asked for one gift, and the parents just wanted some clothes.  But someone, probably the worker who received the list from them, had added to the bottom of the list, "And they would love a DVD player if someone can get it for them."  When we went shopping, we started with all of the basics, but then we got to the bottom of the list.  DVD players weren't exactly cheap then, and this wasn't even something we would necessarily buy for ourselves.  But it felt right.  We wanted this family to open their presents on Christmas morning and say, "Wow!  Someone cares for us!"  We wanted to recapture some of the magic of the season for people who were probably used to lowering their expectations, for parents who were probably saying, "Honey, I'm not sure if Santa will make it to our house this year."  We wanted to give someone a moment of joy.  So we found a DVD player, wrapped it, and dropped it off with the rest of their presents.  And it felt good.

Since then, blessing strangers extravagantly has become an important part of our holiday traditions.  We watch for the "giving trees" and the toy drives and we look for the biggest requests, the little paper ornaments that are still hanging on the tree after all the dollies and remote control cars have gone.  My wife is particularly good at this, being a gift giver extraordinaire, and she has a knack for finding the gifts that leave the organizers shaking their heads and saying, "Boy, I never thought they'd get that, but I can tell you they need it."  Over the years, we've purchased bikes, tricycles, and microwaves, and last year my amazing spouse topped it all off by arranging the surprise delivery of a couch to a family in our area.

So why do we do this?  Are we rich?  Not really, but we've made this kind of giving part of our family budget.  We call it "the blessing fund," and we set aside a portion of our income every month to be used to brighten the lives of others.  We have a "use it or lose it" policy, and whatever we don't spend each year goes to charities that we choose together.  Do we do it because it makes us feel good or to assuage our guilt for being better off than others?  While it's true that it feels good to give, this goes beyond that.  This is an intentional effort to let people know that they are loved, even if it's by a stranger.  We do it because we believe that God loves us and has blessed us with enough money to provide for our own needs with some left over to help others, and we spend that money in ways that maximize its positive effect.

Why don't we just give that money to charities?  While charities provide many vital services and they deserve our support, I think that sending your money to someone else to do good work is nowhere near as tangible as helping someone directly.  And despite some suggestions from well-meaning magazines, I don't agree with the idea of spending your kids' gift money on charities as a way of teaching them about selflessness.  No child is going to be excited to hear, "Your present this year is that we gave a goat to a family in Africa!" unless you follow that sentence with, "And we're going to visit it!"  But let them choose a gift that they'd like to receive and wrap it up for a kid in their city, maybe even in their school, and they start to understand the joy of giving.

So here's my thought: what if we each took some portion of our holiday budget, whether it was intended for ourselves or for charities, and spent it on the people around us?  What if, on top of the small gifts for the toy drives, we also chose one family and gave them that one big gift that they never actually thought someone would give them?  What if we opened our eyes to the greatest needs around us and chose to meet them?  What  kind of difference could we make in our communities?  Whatever you think the answer is, let me tell you: it's bigger.

Here's the thing about extravagant giving: it touches people's hearts and it changes their lives.  Small gifts are nice, but they aren't that unexpected.  We all try to give a little extra around the holidays.  But give someone a couch and you'll get their attention.  It shakes them up, makes them question their assumptions, because someone went out of their way to do something nice for them, something they couldn't or wouldn't do for themselves.  And here's the other thing: it also might just be the one thing that they were praying for.  That extravagant gift, that moment of undiluted joy and surprise, might be the difference between giving up and going on, between a slow slide into despair and a new lease on life.  This is the season of miracles, after all, but the people who need them most have the hardest time believing that they still happen.  Surprise them with that answer to prayer and they may think that you're an angel in disguise.

Now, you don't have to buy furniture to change someone's life.  Even a small unexpected blessing can turn someone's day around.  Here are my suggestions for making someone's season bright:

  • Start small.  If you haven't done this before, ease your way into it.  Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line, or buy the groceries of that little old lady who's trying to pay in change.  Half of the fun lies in the surprise.  If you're shy like me, you don't even have to let them know who did it.  Just buy a gift card and ask the cashier to use it to pay for people until it runs out.
  • Be creative.  Look for something out of the ordinary that will be just what someone needs, and listen to your heart.  If you see someone sitting alone at a restaurant and it feels like they could use a boost, then buy their meal on your way out.  If you know someone at work who's going through a tough time, then get them tickets to a show or a concert that you know they'd like.  Find ways to acknowledge the person behind the present, to meet their need in that moment.
  • Be open and look for the unmet needs.  At this time of year we tend to focus on the kids, as we should, but there are many other people who are looking for some magic in the cold winter months.  Look for the people who everyone else forgot -- the parents, the senior citizens, the college kids who can't go home -- and let them know that they still matter, that they are seen.  Talk to the people who know them and ask what they need, then find a way to give it to them.  Watch for the people who cross your path every day and ask yourself, "What can I do to surprise them with joy?"  You won't be able to do it all, but if you keep your eyes open you'll your personal assignments.
  • Finally, work together.  Being extravagant isn't easy, and it takes both time and money, as I learned with "Take Back the Movies."  But "many hands make light work," as the old Englishman said, so find some friends to join you in this task.  Pool your resources and adopt a family for Christmas, or throw a party at the retirement home, or buy that student some plane tickets so he can go home for the holidays.  You'll all enjoy the challenge, and you'll grow closer to each other even as you reach out to others.
To quote Charlie Brown, "I almost wish there weren't a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?"  Let's find the Charlie Browns of the world and let them know that they are loved, that they matter.  Let's make this season a real Festival of Lights.