It was nearly ten years ago at Christmastime I had an experience that only in the past year have I’ve been able to make sense of and make peace with.
It was my second Christmas at BYU, though this year my parents and two younger siblings would be there in Provo too. Very much there, in the living room of the apartment I shared with my older sister, where we now all lived.
That made six of us living in a two-bedroom apartment on the third story of an artsy old building we liked to say “had character” because it sounded better than the more accurate description that the lousy landlord refused to make any repairs and improvements.
My twenty-seven-year old sister got one room. My parents rigged a sheet divider from the ceiling in the other, where they took one side and my thirteen-year-old brother took the other. My fifteen-year-old sister and I shared the living room floor in the evening, unless it was unbearably hot, as it had been all summer, and then I’d take a camping pad down to a corner of the driveway where I’d lined up two pallets, and sleep outside.
Once, after hiking up the long flight of stairs to come visit, a school friend from Mumbai had exclaimed enthusiastically, “This is just like India!”
Things had changed a lot for my family in the past few months. My father had had a lot of schooling and a successful career as a scientist. Now unemployed and in his mid-fifties, he was trying to make ends meet temping as a nighttime security guard.
My mum had shepherded all but the two youngest of their seven children to adulthood and higher education. Now she was on the phone in the mornings waiting to see where the temp agency had an opening for her that day.
Sometime in the middle of December we heard the tramp of several people working their way up the stairs, and then the muffled thump of a mittened hand knocking on the door. On our doorstep stood a smiling, well-dressed family of four, each holding a wrapped gift or two.
“We picked your names!” they said kindly. My parents graciously ushered them in to the living room, where the bedding had already been folded and tucked away until nighttime.
They introduced themselves, we introduced ourselves, we talked a little about why things were the way they were, they handed out the gifts they had picked for each of us. I only remember two of the presents, my own, and my mum’s.
To my mum they gave a basket with four cloud-like mounds of soft, unspun wool. It was a scrap of comfort to realize that whoever it was that had listed our names must have actually known my mother to know that something like that might delight her.
I unwrapped a pair of very nice heavy cotton Eddie Bauer tights. I wanted to hate them on principle, but pragmatics won, and I ended up wearing those things as long as they lasted, a long time, four years or so.
After half an hour, they wished us “Merry Christmas!” and tramped their booted, coated, scarved, and mittened selves back down the stairs.
I actually have never asked my parents their feelings about that Christmas visit. I’m sure they were mixed. At the time they were affable and understanding, but while acknowledging my indignation and outrage, they mentioned the people’s kindness, and expressed gratitude for their effort and the presents.
I was bitterly embarrassed and furious. Picked our names from where? Who had put our names on some needy list? Most of all I was insulted by the fact that they thought their little gifts, these things, this stuff, handed to us from a stranger, could make us happy. How shallow or how infantile did they think we were—did they think I was? Our family, I raged inwardly, our family that had such rich traditions for Christmas; the smells and lights and song and love and laughter and excitement and anticipation of Christmas—these home joys, these were the stuff of happy Christmases. Sure, Christmas would be different this year, but not because of them.
This year, finally, ten years later, I’ve come to accept their offering. What has changed in my heart? My focus on their motive. This year I’m not automatically assuming their motive was self-praising vanity, or the desire to just make themselves feel good for a spirit-of-Christmas lift.
Ten years of my own attempts to show Christlike love, ten years of my own attempts at service with mixed motives and mixed results has allowed me to see that, “People serve one another for different reasons, and some reasons are better than others. Perhaps none of us serves in every capacity all the time for only a single reason. Since we are imperfect beings, most of us probably serve for a combination of reasons, and the combinations may be different from time to time as we grow spiritually. But we should all strive to serve for the reasons that are highest and best.” (I quote from this.)
For example? Elder Oaks lists some here. In brief, from worst to best: earthly reward, good companionship, fear of punishment, sense of duty or loyalty, eternal reward, love of God and love of his children.
“Getting to the point where we’re only serving out of love as a motivation is not only a challenge, it is THE challenge Jesus Christ has given us in this life. As the Gospel of Matthew says,
“For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
“And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?” (Matt. 5:46–47.)
“This principle—that our service should be for the love of God and the love of fellowmen rather than for personal advantage or any other lesser motive—is admittedly a high standard. The Savior must have seen it so, since he joined his commandment for selfless and complete love directly with the ideal of perfection. The very next verse of the Sermon on the Mount contains this great commandment: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48.) (Still quoting from the same place.)
I have to admit, there’s something about that word “perfect” that seems so distant from my reality, that it’s tempting to tune out when I hear it.
But Christmas, the remembrance of the humble birth of our Saviour who “came to earth to dedicate His whole life as an example of service to others”, gives me a reason to remember: “even as the mortal Savior’s youthful development was described as grace upon grace (see D&C 93:11–14), we learn how to be effective servants step by step over time. Service is a process of growth.” (Now quoting here.)
As I mentioned, this Christmas is the first since the one I described, that I have been able to revisit that memory with love and gratitude for the family that served us, rather than judging them for where I, in my embarrassment, wanted to assign them in their process of growth. Instead, I’ve finally been able to see it as a key to reading my own trail of growth in service.
Though I don’t think Sub for Santa will ever be one of my family’s Christmas traditions, I will say this: If there were ever a way to find that family, I’d want them to know I plan on Christmas being different this year—because of them.
And you: what have been your experiences and conclusions as the giver or receiver of Christmas service?
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