I grew up in a pretty cool family. My dad, a Jewish kid from New Jersey, whose family came from Poland and Russia, and my mom, a WASP from upstate New York, whose family is mostly English-blooded, raised us in a very open fashion. Traditions were pulled from their heritage, their travels, their understanding of the world. And their hippie days. All sorts of beliefs were pooled together, which made for one glorious holiday month of December. Advent (which meant lots of lit candles, cookies, eggnog, hot chocolate, and carols), St. Nicholas (a shoe full of goodies, a letter about our behavior, and lots of glittery sparkles to mark where magic had happened), Hanukkah (more lit candles, this time in a menorah, yummy food of a different type from what we usually ate, and a retelling of what the eight days were all about), Christmas (even MORE lit candles, including--in the early days--candles on the Christmas tree, flames snapping in the fireplace, marzipan and maple sugar treats along with an orange tucked among small gifts in our stockings, Santa and a baby Christ child and many songs and stories), and, finally, Three Kings' Day (where we'd walk around our house with a metal lantern, singing songs and pulling down all holiday decorations). So I was introduced, from an early age, to the idea that everyone, no matter the religious background, could--in the darkest months of the year--share in the light of love, goodwill, and harmony. And one family tradition kind of encompassed the whole of it for me. The Christmas Promise.
We weren't allowed to be a part of this until we were old enough to actually be helpful participants. I think that age was deemed to be about seven. The Christmas Promise was an organization set up to assist families in the direst of needs and situations, to help them make it through the holidays with food, clothing, toys, blankets, hope, and self respect. Teachers were huge in alerting the many Santas about children who needed so much. Letters written at school as class projects were quietly extracted: letters asking for Mommy to get better, for a brother or sister to get a jacket because it had been cold since the heat was turned off, or a sleeping bag because the ground was hard; for Dad to get a job because they wanted to see him smile again; for a book so they could read to a younger sibling who had none .... You get the picture. Many families were facing crisis after crisis in a downward spiral known as poverty. Other community members also alerted the Elves of the Christmas Promise: doctors, librarians, neighbors, people who were able to see a need and wanted to help. And it didn't matter if they believed in Christmas, if they were Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever. And it didn't matter if the recipients were either.
Volunteers donated time, money, gifts, and necessities to sponsor families all around the area of Sacramento, California. Work clothes, regular clothes, toys, books, school supplies, baby needs, toiletries, bicycles, music, gift certificates to clothing and grocery stores, fixings for several meals--including Christmas dinner--and more were sent to a warehouse to be wrapped and sacked by volunteer Elves, to be delivered by volunteer Santas (who were willing to drive through the sketchiest of neighborhoods, at night, on Christmas Eve. Each was given a red Santa suit to wear and was required to have training and a white beard.) All wrapped items were labeled with two stickers: one with the name, the other boy/girl, age, and a quick description of the item enclosed. Santa would arrive at a home with some elves and bags of surprises. He could call the children to him by name, without even needing to be introduced. If someone extra was in the home, Santa could make a quick switch with someone else's gift, as he would know what was age/gender appropriate just by glancing at the label. No one within the household was left out.
The walls of the warehouse were covered in Dear Santa letters, describing the most heart-wrenching scenarios of children and families in need. They were also covered in Love, Santa letters describing the most heart-wrenching scenarios of what the Santas witnessed on one of the most glorious of nights, Christmas Eve. The joy and amazement of SANTA, the tears, the hugs, the chatter. The fear, the sorrow. The humbling of the soul. The amazing open hearts, the families with so little who wanted Santa to sit and share in a treat. The gratitude of being treated as a person, as a human. The beauty of The Christmas Promise still makes me quake.
From the age of seven until I moved away as an adult, I helped in the wrapping. My mother and my sister with her family continued with the tradition up until this year. This year, the last year the doors to the Christmas Promise will be open. The women who run it, and in fact who started it many years ago, are no longer able to keep it going. Volunteers are harder to find. The work load has become too much. They have weathered all sorts of storms in the past--including burglaries of the warehouse, where the community stepped up, banded together regardless of skin color and background, to replenish the gifts for the kids in need. But this time ... this time is it. And I am so sad. I want a Christmas miracle to happen. I want someone to step forward and save it. But, alas ....
I talked to my sister yesterday; she was leaving to volunteer for her last time. "Imagine me with you," I told her, over the phone from Idaho, "I'll be there in spirit." Later, she emailed me a picture of a wrapped and labeled gift. She wrote: "Talk about channeling you; look who I wrapped for today!" The name on the label? Hannah.
I think peace and harmony can exist. Within communities, through diverse religions and philosophies, across cities, and countries and nations. I think we are all capable of lighting candles. We can all share in the sparkle of the magic of potential which this season brings to us. We can make each other feel purposeful, cared about, and recognized as fellow human beings, can make ourselves givers of something akin to the Christmas Promise. Givers of hope and peace, protectors of those in need, champions of humanity.
Peace be to you in this holiday season.