Christmas means many things. To me, it means family. For 15 years Sandra and I welcomed over 100 foster and adopted children into our home, and we always tried to make Christmas special for them. They made projects at school – pencil holders, paperweights, and Christmas ornaments that would remind us every year of the efforts they had put into making them. Sandra and I did everything we could to have biggest program, to bring them truckloads of toys. We worked with charities to help not only the kids who were with us, but we also worked with organizations to help other kids in care and foster kids. We have some wonderful memories of these days, some of which are included in my book Look What I Brought Home.
Those Christmas mornings were very different from the ones I remember from my own childhood. My parents were raised by Depression-era parents. They passed on to us their values – for what matters and what it takes to make ends meet. My parents believed you hang onto things, everything has a purpose and value. In comparison to the emphasis we see now on the fanfare, the flashiness, the excitement of the shopping experience – for a Season that begins around Halloween, if not earlier – in my Christmases past, each of us received one gift on Christmas morning, and that one gift would be the Santa gift. Of course, there might be some gifts under the tree from aunts and uncles, or something we had made at school. And the wrapping paper was a page from the Sunday comics: I used Beetle Bailey, so I could tell which ones I was giving without looking at the tags.
The best gift I ever gave my parents was a Christmas log that I’d worked on at Boy Scouts meetings for almost 2 months. Starting with a piece of a log, cut in half, with holes drilled in the top for candles, I used wax and fake flowers and worked them into the wood as decorations. Nothing today can replace the thoughtfulness of actually putting something together, putting in the effort, and presenting it to them.
Strangely enough, after they died, I found that gift. I was very surprised to see my Christmas log when it came time to clean out the estate. The candles had been burned a couple of times over, the plastic leaves and flowers were dusty and worn. I could tell that at one time it may have been used as an ashtray – burns and cigarette marks against the wood where they put them out. It warmed my heart to have to scrape off the layers of wax because it showed it had been used more than anything from Radio Shack, or something from a manufacturing group in China. I was glad that during my deployments that they’d had it to remind them of me. It makes me think they must have really liked the gift that a 13-year-old put together at Boy Scouts – even if I’m no carpenter. I held onto that Christmas log after they passed. It’s one of the neat things I kept that reminds me of my Christmases past.
Because of the state of the economy now, I am seeing more gifts that are handmade this year – made by the individuals who are giving the gift, not from a store, but from someone who took the time and thought to put them together. Maybe like my Christmas log their workmanship won’t be a likely candidate for an heirloom, but it’s something different that you obviously can’t buy in the store. You may want to consider being a time traveler: finding your own way to make something special, to give to someone who would appreciate something from you. Maybe there are some old traditions, that haven’t been used that often, that can make a comeback. And maybe that comeback will change an attitude and create a worth where there is little worth right now.
And if you want to make a Christmas log of your own: you take a good piece of wood, fresh from a tree cut – it doesn’t matter what kind of tree – about 2’ long, split in two so it can lie flat on a table. Get a glue gun, some fake Christmas flowers – holly maybe and mistletoe – and drill into the top for candles. Make it just big enough for a fireplace mantel. At the end, inscribe your name, who it’s to, and the date is important. And when you present it, light the candles.
I’m going to light some new candles on my Christmas log this year, in memory of two great people who struggled all their lives: one with a 3rd grade education and the other who had a 5th grade education, who worked at Huddle House and Waffle House, and dug ditches. But they had an appreciation for things more special than what you can get at a store. They were my family, just as my wife and all the children who have passed through our home are my family. This is what I will be remembering and giving thanks for as I light those candles at Christmas.