I sat down to open the mail today, surrounded by the inevitable mess that comes with all of the preparations for Christmas. (And, of course the inevitable mess that comes just because I am a truly terrible housekeeper.) I had just finished reading a blog post where the author was searching for a little Christmas spirit. And truthfully, I have felt that way at times over the years. All the preparations for the holiday -- the decorating, the cooking, the gift buying and wrapping -- can begin to seem overwhelming. You know what I mean, don't you? We stress over every little detail as if Martha Stewart herself were to stand in judgment of our work. Everything has to be perfect.
And then I read a story that stopped me in my tracks.
The Center for Great Expectations provides residential treatment for homeless pregnant adolescents and their children, and for homeless pregnant adult women in early substance abuse recovery, along with their children. Here is a story from their latest newsletter:
A Memory of Christmas Past
told by Sister Sheila
Last Christmas, the staff had the opportunity to take the residents out for a nice dinner, thanks to a special donation from a single donor. It was a simple meal at an inexpensive chain restaurant, but to our women it was a huge treat. While the most expensive dinner on the menu was inexpensive by common standards, it was thrilling to tell them they could order what they would like to have, instead of only a few items on the menu. Their faces lit up and they immediately started to chatter about what they would have. Giddy at the thought, several suggested that they would order dessert for an appetizer, main meal and dessert! Of course that was only a fantasy as the staff made sure they ordered a very healthy meal. It was during the meal that the staff suggested they all share their favorite holiday memory. There was dead silence. Nothing. No response. Stares and blank faces...
Finally, as the silence became overwhelming, one girl spoke up to say, "We have no Christmas memories. Holidays were terrible times and we have nothing nice to remember." Again, silence. This time the blank looks and stares were on the faces of the staff. Trying to imagine what that was like, the staff could not find the right thoughts to process the information. So they began to ask questions. "You mean you never went with your family to see the Christmas lights?" "You mean you never had Christmas dinner?" "You mean you never decorated a tree, sang songs, and hung your stocking?" One by one, the residents answered no -- they had never done that. Right then and there Sister Sheila said, "Well, we are going to fix that right now! Come on girls we are going out to make some memories!" It was Christmas Eve, and everyone became excited to see what would happen next. They all piled into the van and off they went. Sister took them to neighborhoods that she knew had spectacular holiday decorations and lights. They sang songs and when they arrived at some especially beautiful displays, the residents jumped out of the van and stood in awe of how beautiful they were. This went on house after house until everyone was tired and cold.
Sister Sheila next brought them to Mass at St. Matthias Church. The beautiful songs, candles and so many people moved them, and they asked question after question. Father Doug spoke of unity and being one under God, and each of Sister Sheila's residents felt he was speaking just to them. Their hearts were touched, and when the collection was taken, these young girls who had nothing took the single dollar bill that they were allowed to have as emergency money, and put it into the collection. Sister Sheila was touched, and will never forget that magical night, especially when they all wanted to go up to the altar to receive Communion!
After church and back at the Center, they sat in the kitchen with hot chocolate, and while they sipped their chocolate and reflected on the night they had just experienced, one of the residents said, "Sister, I will never forget this night. This was the night when we started our first Christmas memories; and Sister, next year when someone asks me what my favorite Christmas memory is, I won't ever have to say 'I don't have one'."
The Center for Great Expectations
19B Dellwood Lane
Somerset, NJ 08873