As an adult, I think I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Christmas. Don’t get me wrong - I love the festive lights, the excitement of seeing my children enjoy the holidays, get-togethers and all the cooking…but I really, really hate the commercialization, obligation and fake sentiment that also seems to have come to accompany the entire season.
How did we, as a society, become so shallow and self-absorbed that what is for some, a very sacred time of year, has been reduced to how much you spend on gifts to prove your love or affection ? And what kind of gift is one given out of a feeling of forced obligation, rather than the spirit of love and generosity? Not one I want. Save your cash.
For me, gift giving has never been about how much the gift costs, but about what is special to the person receiving it, and the intent of the person giving it. I would like to share a story with you that will always hold a very special place in my heart, and I hope, yours.
One Christmas in particular, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a gift that came from the heart of someone I must have known - but someone whose identity still remains a mystery over 10 years later.
It was two years before I left my abusive ex- husband, and money was very tight. At the time he wasn’t working and I was the only income earner, and my credit cards were getting maxed out trying to keep the family afloat. I didn’t share how bad things were with anyone at work , or my friends, but those who cared obviously could see how hard I was trying to keep it all together.
Looking back at photos taken that year, the stress shows clearly on my face in every one. As most parents do, or have done, I would always go without to make sure the kids had what they needed, but that year I was actually gluing the soles back onto my winter boots, and doubling up sweaters instead of buying a winter coat to make sure Santa arrived Christmas morning.
Christmas did arrive on a cold Saturday morning, and the kids were not disappointed. They were playing with their presents when I finally moved around the house to open the curtains to a new day, and as I pulled back the drapes on my dining room window, I saw a basket on the railing of the patio fence outside.
Totally surprised, I grabbed my house coat and ran outside. There before me, nestled in the snow on the railing,was a brightly decorated basket with my name on it. I looked around, but could see no one. It had not been there long, because it remained untouched by the sparkling diamond frost that covered every surface, and I could see fresh foot prints in my garden leading to the fence. In puzzled excitement, I ran back inside the house to see what it was, and who it was from.
I sat down alone at the dining room table, slowly taking in the lovely wrapping and ribbons. As I pulled back the tissue paper that encased the contents, the sweet smell of satsuma mandarin orange wafted from the basket, hit my nostrils, and overwhelmed my battered soul.
Inside, were three, jewel like bars of soap from The Body Shop, in my favorite fragrance. I held each one in my hands as if they were the most precious gems, with tears trickling down my face, wondering who would do such a nice thing for me.I took every single piece of tissue paper out,looking for a clue, but there was no card; only a gift tag with my name written on it in handwriting I did not recognize.
Suddenly overwhelmed by the sheer grace of this most cherished gift, I ran outside again and looked around in the snow, thinking another card must have fallen off. I followed the footprints back to the curb where someone had obviously gotten back into their car, but nothing. No clues, no names, only me – standing there alone Christmas morning on the sidewalk in front of my house, oblivious to the curious stares of passers-by, in my natty old house coat and glued up boots, tears streaming down my face … happier in that cold moment than I had been in many, many years.
When I returned to work later that week, I asked everyone if they were my secret Santa, but no one knew anything. From beneath lowered lids, I surreptitiously watched everyone go by my office for a look, a smile, something to indicate someone was keeping a secret from me… but nothing.
To this day, I have no idea who was thinking of me in such a thoughtful way that Christmas. That one gift meant so much to me because I would never have spent money on something as frivolous as mandarin scented soaps for myself, and it helped me through what was a very tough time in my life. Just knowing that there was someone who cared enough to pay attention to something I had perhaps mentioned casually in conversation over coffee, someone who then took the time to actually bring it over on an early Christmas morning… it left me with faith. It was an incredible act of selflessness and compassion on the part of the secret Santa.
I didn’t use that soap for a long time, but kept it in my drawers.
When I was feeling hopeless, or having a particularly rough time with my ex, I would steal away upstairs – just for a moment - and sit on the edge of my bed to open the drawers where the soap was safely hidden. The fragrance of satsuma mandarin would suddenly rise to envelop me ,flooding all my senses and it would always give me strength and hope to go on.
To them it was just nice soap, but to me it was everything.
The scent remains my favorite, symbolizing the will to go on,survival… and whenever I come across that scent again,even for the briefest moment, it again overwhelms my soul with joy. I still don’t spend money on things like that, although I suppose I could. I guess old habits die-hard.
And so, as we enter the season that has become so commercialized that we forget the true meaning behind the celebrations,I urge you to re-connect with your loved ones,your neighbours, and complete strangers, in the true spirit of compassion and love. Forget about all the expectations of expensive gifts and costly parties, and show your love in another way.
Host a holiday potluck where everyone brings a dish that has particular significance among their family,and ask them to share that memory with all.
Toast the traditions of our older generations that perhaps did not have the basic luxuries so many of us do, that we often take for granted.
Play secret Santa and give a gift from the heart – anonymously- to someone whom you know could really use it.
Everyone knows a person who is going through a rough time for one reason or another. Maybe they lost their job, maybe they are caring for a sick family member, or maybe they are just always struggling to get ahead. Christmas can be incredibly hard for those who are dealing with life’s troubles. Do something special for them,keep it secret and supply them with the same faith and hope and memories that I have. It doesn’t have to be costly, just from the heart. You may never know what a simple gesture may mean to someone else.
But I do.
This column originally appeared in I'm Laila Yuile and This is How I See It. Reprinted with Ms. Yuile's kind permission.