Monday, December 20, 2010

Entertaining Angels

"Refugees from Eastern European countries need a Christmas."

I heard this announcement on the radio in November, 1982, and called for information. Maybe we could help.

Our Sub-for-Santa tradition started on our second Christmas. Dee was in school, we lived in a tiny trailer with a new baby; 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, also as poor as could be, but miserable. Anonymously we left a couple of presents and a small 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, and over the years the kids earned money and bought a gift for a child in the family we were assigned. Just before Christmas we cleaned out closets and toy boxes, and spiffed up items that were in good condition, but outgrown. Some years we could afford more, sometimes less, but we always had enough to share.

It was important that the families kept their dignity, and knew we respected them. We didn't want to intrude, or inject ourselves into their holiday, either. Santa does his work quickly and quietly and disappears, and we were his substitutes. It pleased us that the kids didn't pass judgment on the people we visited, and we talked about how to be friendly to strangers who usually felt awkward and embarrassed.

Since our kids were always part of the planning and earning process, we wanted them to experience the actual giving as well. They were always 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 duplex 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 in the living room providing a bit of privacy. They were Vietnamese refugees, and nobody spoke English. We were directed to the kitchen 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 smiled nervously at the people sitting on the floor staring at them. Micah (who had just turned eight) stuck out his hand to shake hands with a very elderly man, and said, "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 from Europe with nothing, and needed Christmas early.

The Hlinovski's had escaped from Czechoslovakia. There were two children, and the parents were both doctors. The father in the Paslowski 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.

The adults 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 carried our offerings of toys, pajamas and food into an apartment that was almost empty. Three children and their parents had been sleeping on the floor under newspapers for a week. There was a card table, but not a single chair or piece of furniture. A crucifix hung in the living room, and they had the clothes on their backs. 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, a couch and card table. They had been in Utah a couple of weeks and had some acquaintances in the city, so their situation wasn't as desperate, but they were in need of more than we expected.

On the way home we decided to keep the kids out of school the next day. Providing basic necessities was going to take some effort. After a few phone calls to neighbors and family, we sent the kids off to collect blankets, towels, groceries and clothing.

Dee borrowed a truck and he and the boys went to Deseret Industries to purchase some used furniture. We had two old beds, so they loaded them up while the girls and I cleaned out our closets to find everything from coats to quilts. After seeing their condition, it was almost sickening to realize how much extra stuff we had.

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

At the Czech home, they offered us beer and biscuits. We turned down the beer, so they made 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. Our kids bravely drank (chewed) the thick, bitter concoction and ate leetle keeks, which turned out to be cookies.

The young Polish mom sat and cried as we carried in our old scratched up coffee table, and the wobbly bunk beds. 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 three) ran and hid in the drapes, but she chased after him and scooped him up to kiss him on each cheek.

We lost track of both families by spring. I'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.

Illustrations from: The Truth About Santa, Green Tiger Press

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers:
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
—Hebrews 13:2


Christie said...

Beautiful, Oma. What an amazing story. I bet somewhere, they are sitting around talking about that family who brought them everything on Christmas one year.

We adopted a family this year, too. It was so great for my kids to shop for their kids, and so fun to sneak it all over there in the middle of the night. Giving really is awesome.

Kay Dennison said...