The gift of gratitude
I know Thanksgiving is supposed to be our holiday of gratitude. But for me, Christmas is much more so.
I think perhaps it’s because I don’t struggle to farm and harvest the food for the feast like our ancestors did. The Thanksgiving meal is just a family get together these days. The celebration of gratitude for the harvest isn’t quite as tangible as it once was.
But Christmas has that feeling for me. Because all of the best Christmases of my life have been seasoned with gratitude . . .
When my parents were living in San Francisco forty years ago, they were far from their families in Colorado for Christmas. I don’t remember those days — I was just a baby. But they didn’t have much — my dad was going to seminary and working full time to feed and shelter his young family. All they could afford for a Christmas meal was frozen pizza — the kind you can get at the grocery store today for ninety-nine cents.
Somewhere over the years, Christmas Eve pizza became a tradition for the Barrick family. Homemade, take out, gourmet — a remembrance of when my parents had nothing. My brothers, my sister and I have carried on that tradition and our children know why. The pizza means something to us. And it means far more to me than a turkey. Because we do it to remember that God took care of my parents and their babies with a simple meal, and He never let us starve.
* * * * *
On Christmas Eve, after devouring our calzones — this year’s variation on the pizza theme — Dave and I and our children sat around the twinkle-lighted living room remembering our own Christmases past.
There is one in particular that we remember with deep emotion. And I wish all of you who were a part of this story could have been in our house that night to see how powerfully your generosity impacts our children still.
Four years ago, in mid-November, Dave had lost his job which also meant we had to leave the home which had been provided at the camp. It exhausts me now to think of how quickly we had to pack while searching for jobs and a new place to live. Just six weeks from the time he was asked to resign to the day we had to be out. And Christmas was a week before move out.
The organization Dave had worked for docked his final paychecks to recoup money he owed them. They even took the three weeks of vacation/comp time he hadn’t had time to use (a painful irony) and charged us rent for the month of grace I’d pleaded for when they told us to be out of our house by December 1st. (I know they were within their rights to do so and indeed could have been far less gracious, but at the time, it felt cold and callous to me.)
We were in debt. No savings to bail us out. And we fell through every crack in the unemployment/social services system for one reason or another (painful memories for a later post). Everything — literally everything — we received during that time was a gift from someone else. We had absolutely nothing.
We were utterly dependent on God and the generosity of others.
Many of our friends and family and even the staff of our kids’ schools helped us with food and paying our regular bills and our church helped us with the rent. Still, we were deeply depressed and discouraged by our circumstances. Dave was in withdrawals and I was barely hanging on by a thread.
Desperate for hope, we started writing on a poster board in our living room every blessing we received. It was a daily reminder to me during those gloomy winter weeks that God still really did care about us.
I forget now where Dave’s parents were that Christmas. Perhaps Brazil to visit Dave’s sister. I think we were supposed to have gone to California to spend the holiday with my extended family, but our current crisis prevented that. At any rate, somehow, we ended up being far away from family for Christmas that year, scraping together some sort of celebration in our sad, packed-up house at the cold, empty camp.
I think I bought one gift for each child that Christmas. Our lovely tree — the nicest we’d ever had and which Dave’s parents had gotten for us — was going to be rather lonely.
The children remember details of that night better than I do. They reminded me this Christmas Eve of things I’d forgotten. We’d gone out someplace, they said, I think maybe Christmas Eve service at our church . . . and when we came home, there were black garbage bags on our darkened front porch.
“Mom, you were so mad,” they said. “You thought someone had put their trash on our porch!” They laughed about my irritation and muttering. And that I would think someone would do something so mean to us on Christmas Eve.
“But when you got close to the pile of bags, you started crying and we didn’t know why” . . . and that’s when we all lost it. Tears — remembering the sight.
The bags were heavy — filled with presents. Some from friends, some from strangers.
The children’s theater group we’d been a part of for a few years had already been so generous to us. Many monetary gifts and gifts of food had come from them already. But now it seemed that they had also bought us presents. There were several gifts from the Director and her family and others. And one of the girls from the theater, Lauren who was a 6th grader at the time, had even gotten her class at school to buy Christmas presents for each of the kids. There were dozens of gifts! So much generosity — it was overwhelming.
Christmas morning was absolutely delightful. So many surprises. So many sweet gifts. The list fills fifty lines of my journal. It was a Christmas my children will never forget. And remembering it, all of us together this Christmas Eve, was a gift in itself.
* * * * *
I know that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And I feel it when I watch the delight in the faces of my kids when they open presents. But there’s something about receiving a gift you never, ever could have obtained for yourself — and would never have received had not God intervened. I believe it produces real gratitude.
I see this gift of gratitude in my children who so freely spent their own money to buy gifts for each other this Christmas. Who say things like, Why does Great-Grandma send us money for Christmas? We should be sending HER money! They are contented and pleased with their three Christmas gifts from their parents because they remember so very clearly what it was like to be poor and we could give them nothing.
* * * * *
Sometimes I forget. To my shame. I get caught up in wishing things were other than what they are. Like wishing I had nicer furniture and perusing Craigslist for the-couch-that-will-bring-me-joy. Or dreaming of not having to work, but having the perfect house, the perfect car. And then I get crabby and discontent with my life. It’s so easy to slip into discouragement if I compare my life with others.
The thing that pulls me out of that pit of self-centeredness is the gift that God has given to me many times over. A gift I would never understand if I had not known what it was like to be totally inadequate. I have to be reminded of what was and what could have been.
I have to remember the past. I have to remember how God has provided. And I have to see the blessings in my life today and be thankful for each one. Gratitude is a great healer.
Please, Lord, teach us to laugh again; but, God, don’t ever let us forget that we cried. — Bill Wilson, Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous