45. The Christmas Shoebox

45. The Christmas Shoebox

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

The Christmas Shoebox

It isn’t the size of the gift that matters, but the size of the heart that gives it.

~Quoted in The Angels’ Little Instruction Book by Eileen Elias Freeman

When I think of Hanukkahs past, I remember my parents’ kitchen, the smell of crisp latkes fried in oil, the glow of colorful candles burning in the menorah, and the gold foiled chocolate coins attached to each small present every night for eight nights. I remember singing Rock of Ages at my local Jewish Community Center, spinning plastic dreidels for hours, and eating so many jelly doughnuts that my stomach would ache.

When I think of the true meaning of the holiday season, my mind always takes me back to the time when I was a law student in Boston. As a Midwesterner in a distinctly New England university, I was often teased about my accent and my lack of knowledge of all things Bostonian. But, I was enamored of the city, its rich history, neighborhoods and cosmopolitan feel. Each day I relied on the gold dome of the Capitol to help me find my way to class.

It was a time I felt most alive, because everything was new. As I made the daily trek up and down the sloping cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill, my backpack weighed down by several thick law books, there was a purpose in my step. With so many colleges and universities nearby, it was a great city and a great time to be a student.

One December, however, I found myself all alone in Boston over the holidays. Our law school had finals after winter break and I didn’t have the money or time to leave town to visit my parents. I decided that this was my penance for getting behind in Constitutional Law and I would spend the next two weeks huddled in the library revisiting the law of search and seizure. Still, as my friends talked about their visits home and their vacations, I became increasingly blue.

When a friend offered to take me home with her for Christmas for a couple of days, I didn’t hesitate before saying yes. I knew that it wasn’t an easy decision for her. She was from the Northeast tip of the state and she had told me that she came from a very poor family. Her dad had been disabled for many years and her mom worked several jobs to keep the family afloat. My friend had cautioned me that her house wasn’t much to look at and that what little furniture they had was old and tattered. None of that mattered to me.

It was my first time celebrating Christmas and I didn’t know what to expect. Talk about being a gefilte fish out of water! As our bus rolled into town, I saw the tired, grey clapboard buildings, one after another, and had to admit to myself that it seemed a world away from my middle class enclave in suburban Chicago. The bit of trepidation I had dissolved when I met her mom. She was warm, with kind, brown eyes just like my friend’s. She immediately gave me a big, welcoming hug, something my own mom would have done for any friend of mine.

The tiny kitchen was already full with pans of baked goods, Christmas cookies and presents. There was lasagna in the oven and sausage and peppers on the stove, a nod to my friend’s father’s Italian heritage. I had purchased a small gift for the family, but noticed that the tree was adorned with dozens of beautifully wrapped gifts. Perhaps I should have brought a few more?

On Christmas Eve, I accompanied the family to their local parish for Mass. I hadn’t spent much time in church and didn’t want to stand out. I had no idea what the customs were, but I arrived in my holiday finery and nervously smiled at the other congregants. My friend ushered us to the back of the church so that it wouldn’t be so obvious when I didn’t kneel or take communion. I remained seated in the pew throughout the service on the holiest day of the year. My friend later told me someone asked what had happened to “that lovely young lady’s legs.” Everyone there assumed that I couldn’t walk, not that I wasn’t Catholic!

The next day, we exchanged gifts. I certainly didn’t expect anything from my hosts. After all, they could hardly afford their own presents and I was grateful that they had taken me in on such short notice. I was surprised when my friend’s mom handed me not one, but three, gifts. The first was homemade banana bread wrapped in aluminum foil and a blue bow. Next, was a beautifully wrapped shoebox. I opened it carefully and inside was a small, golden menorah. The third present contained the candles to light.

This little Irish Catholic lady had knocked on the door of the only synagogue in town and had spoken to the rabbi there. She told him that a young, Jewish woman would be staying with her over the holidays and asked what he thought she would like for Hanukkah.

I learned many lessons that day about the true meaning of giving and I learned that simple acts of kindness can remain in your heart forever.

The sweetness of that Christmas so many years ago is the benchmark by which I measure each and every Hanukkah.

~Shari Cohen Forsythe

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