In what I call my “previous life”...life before children...I had a "real" job. Over the course of my career I worked primarily with marginalized people; new immigrants, the homeless and people living with mental illness. Working with these people opened my eyes to the difficulties faced by so many people around the holiday season.
Although my parents divorced when I was in my early twenties, Christmas has always been about family for me. As a child we would open presents at home on Christmas morning, pack up the car and head to my grandparents for Christmas breakfast, lunch and dinner. The house was always full of food, presents and family. As I grew up I became more aware of other people's celebrations. Nothing made me (and makes me) cry like John and Yoko singing "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" or Band Aid's "Do They Know it's Christmas?" I was wholeheartedly moved by those moments in my youth.
However, it wasn't until I was working at a temp agency, that employed primarily new immigrants and the "unemployable", that I saw how Christmas is celebrated by people living in real poverty. Our Christmas party was full of grateful faces. Grateful for the time we spent having meaningful conversations, grateful for food we had prepared ourselves and grateful for the crafty gifts we presented to each individual.
When you work in social services you don't necessarily get Christmas Day off. It's on Christmas day that you see the real pain of Christmas. The elderly woman sitting in her rocking chair all day long...where she sits 365 days of the year. Visiting with a woman who is so blinded by the grief of her life lost to mental illness that she takes a near overdose of pain meds, simply to have a personal visit. This is how many people spend Christmas day. Through no fault of their own, they have lost family, lost friends and lost that personal connection we all desire.
There certainly are moments of hope. Don't get me wrong. The miracle is in the way people persevere and cope. When I left the woman who had taken the near overdose, she was with her husband...who was preparing a Christmas dinner. The smiles on the people I carpooled to a community Christmas dinner, where they too will create new happy memories. The many foodbank baskets we delivered to our clients homes. Or the homeless people I met at the bus station with tickets to get back "home" in time for the holidays.
I suppose the holidays now are about awareness for me. Being more aware of the story behind the person sitting on the sidewalk with their hand out. I try to fight the cynicism. My mother always gave that person her change. She fought the cynicism. When you open yourself to awareness you see into the hearts of people who deserve much better than they have.
I'll end with a lyric from my favourite Christmas album "Sesame Street Christmas" (1975)
Christmas means the spirit of giving, peace and joy to you.
The goodness of loving, the gladness of living.
These are Christmas too.