Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sub-for-Santa, Republished 2009


"Refugees from Eastern European countries need a Christmas."
I heard this announcement on the radio one year in late November and called for information.

Our tradition of Subbing-for-Santa had started on our second Christmas. Dee was in school, we lived in a trailer with our new baby, and we were poor as could be, but happy. Our neighbor was a single mom who lived in an even older, smaller trailer. She was a student with a two-year-old, and also as poor as could be, but miserable. We anonymously left a few presents and a turkey outside her door on Christmas Eve and discovered it made our meager celebration brighter. Charles Dickens said, "No one is useless who lightens the burden of someone else." Our new tradition made us feel useful.

The newspaper offered sub-for-Santa opportunities. Over the years we had the kids earn money and buy a gift for a child in the family we were assigned. We cleaned out the closets and toy boxes and spiffed up items that were in good condition, but outgrown. At Christmas time we often received a turkey or sack of oranges, chocolates or a ham from friends or business associates. These extra gifts became part of our offering. Some years we could afford more, sometimes less, but we always had enough to share.

I remember the Christmas Eve we visited a little family comprised of two children and a mom. The little boy let us in, but the mother was nowhere to be seen. We could understand that she was embarrassed to be in her situation, but still anxious for her kids to have something under the tree. She knew to expect us, but chose to be occupied, so we sang a Christmas carol, and carried in the loot. Dee told the kids that Santa had left their presents at our house by mistake. and then we left. The kids didn't say a word, but just watched, and the mom didn't come out of the bedroom. But as we got in the car their cute little faces were pressed against the window as they grinned and waved. The mother waved from behind them.

It was important to us for the families to keep their dignity, and know we had respect for them. We didn't want to intrude, or inject ourselves into their holiday. Santa does his work quickly and quietly and disappears, and we were just his substitutes. It pleased us that our kids never made disparaging comments, and they didn't pass judgments on the people we visited. They were often concerned (and we were, too) about how to be friendly and kind to strangers, who felt awkward about how to treat us. If we could leave our bag anonymously, that was our preference, but we didn't want the new bike (or whatever) stolen off the porch. Since our kids were always part of the planning and earning process, we wanted them to experience the actual giving as well. They were so sweet and generous, even though they knew this came out of their own stash of stuff.

One year we took some gifts to a tiny, old home in a very poor area of our city. The family had three children, but there were grandparents and other adults all living together. Curtains were hung between several beds, providing a bit of privacy in the four room house. They were Vietnamese refugees, and nobody spoke English. We were directed to the back of the house and we walked through with our bags of goodies, while they all looked on, expressionless. It was an opportunity for us to see circumstances very different than our own. On the way back to the front door, the kids held hands tightly, and nervously smiled at the people sitting on the floor staring at them. Micah (who was about 10) stuck out his hand to shake hands with a very elderly man, and said, "This is a nice condo." When we were outside, we looked at him with amusement and he said defensively, "Well, it was."

After hearing the radio announcement in 1982, we signed up for two families. It was just after Thanksgiving, but we were told these people had arrived with nothing, and needed Christmas early. The organization that helped them escape from behind the iron curtain worked with the government somehow, and they were given a state assignment, so no one state had an overabundance of refugees looking for homes, jobs, etc. Both families had left everything behind. Neither family had a phone or a car, but we were given the addresses to their apartments.

One family had escaped from Czechoslovakia. There were two children, and the parents were both doctors. The father in the other family was a political refugee who had been highly placed in the solidarity movement against the Communist government in Poland. His life was in danger, and they were lucky to get out. These people were highly educated and respected in their homelands. They loved those places enough to fight for freedom and a release from the bondage of Communism. Now they were at the mercy of a new country, where they didn't speak the language, and were lucky to get jobs as janitors.

When we arrived at the home of our Polish family, we were totally unprepared. We carried our offerings of toys, pajamas and food into an apartment that was empty. Three children and their parents had been sleeping on the floor under newspapers. There was a card table, but not a single chair or piece of furniture. The mother had hung a crucifix in the living room, and they had the clothes on their backs. That was all. They didn't have silverware, or dishes, or a pot or a pan. It was shocking to us. We felt silly giving them dolls and toy cars when they needed soap and toothbrushes.

The other family had beds and a couch and card table. They had been here a couple of weeks and had some acquaintances in the city. The situation there wasn't as desperate, but they were in need of more than we had expected.

On the way home we decided to keep the kids out of school the next day. We wanted to provide necessities, and it was going to take some effort. Phone calls were made to neighbors and family members and we immediately started collecting blankets, towels, groceries and clothing.

Dee borrowed a truck and he and the boys went to a second hand store and purchased some furniture. We had some mattresses and beds in a storage garage, so they loaded those up while we cleaned out our closets and cupboards to find everything from coats to quilts--anything we didn't need. After seeing their conditions, it was almost sickening to realize how much extra stuff we had.

Later that afternoon we returned to the apartments and unloaded everything.

Afterwards, at the Czech home, they offered us beer and biscuits. We turned down the beer, so they said they'd make us some orange juice. The dad put a few whole oranges (with the peels) into the blender we'd brought, and ground it all up. The kids bravely drank (actually we had to chew) this strange, thick and bitter concoction. We were given "leetle keeks" which turned out to be cookies. That was a phrase that was used affectionately in our home for many years afterwards.

I'll never forget the young Polish mom. She sat and cried as our kids carried in our old scratched up coffee table, and the well-used and wobbly bunk beds. Her new set of silverware was our cheap and flimsy wedding present. But she was so grateful. Her children spoke a little English and translated her words of thanks. Then she grabbed each one of us and hugged and kissed us. Peter (who was 3) ran and hid in the drapes, but she chased after him and scooped him up to kiss him on each cheek.

We followed up with them over the next few weeks, but lost track of them by the spring. We've always wondered what happened to them as they assimilated into our society and culture. I hope things worked out for them, and that they are happy now.

In Hebrews it says, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." The strangers we have tried to entertain in our Sub-for-Santa undertakings have often been the angels that gave the Christmas Spirit to our family.

Illustrations from: The Truth About Santa, Green Tiger Press

2 comments:

Stie: My Favorite Things said...

We had the opportunity to give through the school for needy families. The kids bought the gifts (as I wrote on my blog) and had a great experience giving. I happened to be at the school last week right at the moment that one of the families was getting their car loaded up with the gifts. The mother was sobbing, hugging the teacher, and saying thank you - over and over. She had a rusty, beat-up car that looked at least 25 years old. It brought tears to my eyes and humbled me. It made me wish we had done more.

Rebecca said...

Wow. I always knew there were angels amongst us....