My mom, Janet, came from very humble beginnings. A family of 7 and growing up in the 50s and 60s came with multiple challenges. She and her siblings lived a life with many struggles. Their mother was a strict Catholic who was also schizophrenic. Her father desperately wanted to help, but was tied (limited) by legal procedures. My mother and her sisters and brother lived separated for much of their childhood, in and out of multiple foster homes - many times being abused in homes that were meant to keep them safe from harm.
Living a life never knowing where the next meal was going to come from, wearing shoes that were too small, not having clothing that fit and many times the clothes were not appropriate for the weather conditions. Never knowing where they would put their head to sleep at night (as this changed often) and wishing to have a home full of love was the common Christmas wish - having a toy (as much as this was a common dream) was secondary.
I cannot relate to the life my mother and my aunts and uncle lived, but I can appreciate the life she gave me and I know that I shouldn't speak for my two cousins, but I do believe that when they take time to reflect - they quite possibly feel the way that I do about the life we were given even though our mothers often had to "fend for themselves" and grow up faster than any child should have to.
So now I go back to our Christmas stresses or frustrations, just a few short years ago. Buying presents for one another became stressful. What did the other person REALLY need or want? What would be most thoughtful but at the same time useful? We understand that with every challenge there is always an answer that can become a gift. We were about to find the gift in this.
In 2013 we had an idea. My mom and I discussed the spending we would do. We often put $100 to each person. So $100 for my mom and $100 for my dad, and they would spend $100 for my husband and $100 for me. Some would say, let's just give cash to one another, but in my calculation, that just simply cancels it out. We decided to do something that brings even more Christmas sprit to people (including us).
My mom can remember what it was like to live with very little, like it was yesterday. I do remember a few years (when my mom struggled to provide Christmas "toys" to me when I was a young child, so I could relate a little bit about only getting the necessities and I remember even having a Charlie Brown Christmas tree one year - and as a young girl, it just didn't feel like Christmas, to have a tree that was bare). As I think back to those days, I recognize that the fact that I even had a Christmas tree at all, was more than some children ever get - even today.
In 2013 we decided to be anonymous and give to 2 families in need at my children's school. We talked with the administration, we asked if there were any families that would appreciate being our angels (to receive gifts). The questions we asked were, how many children? Mother and father? Ages of each and sizes of feet and clothing. We asked about hobbies and likes and we even asked about DREAMS. If they could get anything for Christmas, what would it be? Many of us would assume the wants and dreams would be MASSIVE...yet, when we live in humble times, in times of struggle, often our dreams are small in comparison to what many people expect at Christmas. One mother always dreamed of being able to afford a pair of skates so that she could skate on public ice rinks with her daughter. She also expressed the desire to have phone cards so that she would keep in touch with her family that lived out of town. Another mother wanted to be able to feed her family at Christmas. And the kids, well - they wanted what most kids want. A winter coat, winter boots, one special toy to call their own...and the older girl wanted a nice backpack for school, a girls magazine, some makeup and a few hygiene products. What pre-teen doesn't want that stuff? But I would bet that most pre-teens get a whole lot more than that stuff. Don't we all expect too much at times? This gift giving project we've begun, makes us really appreciate what we have and we realize how much we can really do without - if we became more honest with ourselves.
So off we went, we took my 3 kids (who at the time were 2, 4 & 6). We had my 6 year old help pick the winter coat with snow pants for one girl who was also 6. She also helped us pick the matching boots and hat and mittens. All 3 children helped us pick a toy or special keepsake. Since that year was quite cold and snowy before Christmas, we decided to give the school the winter clothing before Christmas (unwrapped) so that she would wear these items immediately. We later gave the wrapped toys and other gifts in time for Christmas. Both families were single moms raising their only children. So we treated the moms to gifts also. That mom who dreamed of skating with her daughter, we got her skates that were brand new, we also bought some phone cards. Last but not least we bought grocery store gift cards to contribute to their Christmas dinner shopping.
We never met these families, nor did we need to. We knew that our $400 went a whole lot further than it ever would have if we just spent it on ourselves. We felt the true spirit of Christmas, because giving in that way (without expectation) gave us more joy than we could ever imagine.
We did it again in 2014, but this time we had a family member and a dear friend who were both experiencing major challenges so we decided to give to both of them to provide a small gift of hope for brighter days.
This year (our 3rd year) we picked one lady. She is a woman who has 3 children (who do not live with her), and she has multiple health challenges. My mom and dad are in the middle of downsizing and my mom asked her what she might need (assuming that furniture might be helpful) and a few days later, this woman said - if you come across an extra winter coat and winter boots, I would appreciate that. Now we know that everyone is a different size, so the simple fact of giving used clothing to another person may not be as simple as it sounds. We knew that we had our Christmas Angel for this year. She cried tears of joy and gratitude to have a pair of boots and a winter jacket that not only fit but she loved the colours and the comfort of both. She continued on to say that no one has ever done something like this for her. As an additional gift my mom drove her to a location that puts families on a list for gifts. She now knows that because she is on the list, she will be given gift cards that she will be able to give to her children when she sees them this Christmas.
So additional to giving to the food bank each year, as well as any charities throughout the year, we feel that finding our Christmas Angel each year will not only continue - we intend to increase our spending as we are able, so that we can give Christmas wishes to even more families.