7: Lela’s First Christmas

7: Lela’s First Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Lela’s First Christmas

It takes hands to build a house, but only hearts can build a home.

~Author Unknown

When I first met Jesse, I knew he had a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter somewhere in Indonesia. Lela lived with her mother and, believing she was well cared for, Jesse sent generous monthly support. As our relationship progressed into a life partnership, Jesse and I talked about going together to visit Lela. But I could never have guessed that this unknown child would become my cherished daughter.

On September 8, 2012, Jesse received a shocking letter from an Australian missionary in a small Indonesian village informing him that Lela had somehow been abandoned, and was now living hand to mouth on the streets. Horrified, we immediately made arrangements to fly to Indonesia. I knew that if I was going to spend the rest of my life with Jesse, that life would now include Lela, and I had to be part of this. We were determined to bring her home to Canada.

When we arrived, to our joy and amazement, Lela quickly and immediately identified Jesse as her father, and accepted me as her mother. After three long months in Indonesia dealing with the government bureaucracy and immigration laws, frequently despairing that we would ever be successful, we finally gained full custody of Lela. Once we had the necessary documents to allow us to leave with her we began our long journey home. On December 8, 2012, we landed safely on Canadian soil, a day we will never forget.

Having arrived in Canada in December, everywhere we looked we were surrounded by reminders of Christmas, which was fast approaching. Lela, having been born into the Muslim culture, had no concept at all of what Christmas was. Here was this four-year-old little girl with no idea who Santa Claus and his reindeer were, nor the joy they would bring children on Christmas Day.

Luckily, Lela spoke a little English, because her home had been in an area frequented by English-speaking tourists. She quickly learned more, and we spent hours teaching her English.

We also had something else to teach Lela! In the few weeks left before the big day our goal became to teach Lela everything about Christmas that a Canadian child should know. She got to see snow for the very first time on the drive home from the airport. We actually got out of the car with her to make snow angels, and we even built a snowman!

We quickly got a real Christmas tree and decorated it together as a family. It was so much fun to see Lela’s pure delight! We sang Christmas carols together, and Lela even got to meet Santa for the very first time. It was amazing how much she absorbed as she watched Christmas movies — completely in awe. She quickly caught on to all the details and fun involved in a Canadian Christmas, including Santa and his elves, and even learned all the names of the reindeer! She was excited to be celebrating a new holiday with her new family, even though she was surrounded by people she had never met. She seemed to adapt to Canada and our holiday traditions right away.

We knew that over the holidays she was going to be meeting a lot of new family members, all of whom had played vital roles in the effort to bring her home. To help prepare her, we began to build the excitement about who was coming with phone calls, and familiarizing her with their faces in photos. No matter who she was introduced to, she immediately welcomed them into her life. She was so excited about all the family she had never met, but who had really always been there.

As we did our Christmas shopping for family and friends and began wrapping the gifts, Lela set aside a shoebox and put it under the tree. As Christmas got closer she would add small items to it: gifts she had already been given, or things from her bedroom. Since we were always shopping for everyone else, she just assumed there would be nothing under the tree for her. Her plan was to just keep adding things to her shoebox so she would have gifts at Christmas too. She never complained or asked where her gifts were; she was happy helping to pick out gifts for the rest of her new family and friends.

Finally, a few days before Christmas, relatives began to arrive to spend the holiday with us. Lela was excited as she sat at the window waiting for people she had never met, but she knew were her family. As soon as they pulled in she ran out with open arms. She knew exactly who everyone was, and was anxious to show them her very own bedroom, and the toys we had accumulated for her since she had arrived. At every meal she would lead the prayer before we ate, insisting that everyone hold hands, and saying, “I love all my family.” It was so humbling to see her cherish a simple family dynamic that we had all just taken for granted.

When Christmas morning arrived Lela was up early with the excitement of Santa and Christmas. She first went to the coffee table where we had left a few treats for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. She immediately commented that they only took a few bites out of everything, and this was a waste so she proceeded to eat the treats and carrot herself. She explained by sharing a nugget of wisdom from her own four years of life, “You should always eat everything you get.”

After that, the gift opening began. This happened a lot slower than in most Canadian homes where there are young children. There was no frenzy of ripping open gifts. When she was handed a present she would open it so slowly and carefully. Then, after it was unwrapped, she would just sit there and stare at it, want to open it further or play with it. She was in no rush to move on to the next gift. We would tell her there was more under the tree for her and she would say “for me?” in English, with evidence of her Indonesian language still present. Every time she opened a gift with multiples (like a four-pack of lip balm) she would want to share it with everyone else; this little girl who was so used to having nothing could not understand that four of the same thing were all for her.

After all the gifts were finally opened, and Lela at last understood that there were, indeed, gifts for her under the tree, she took the shoebox and filled it with a few of the items she had just received. When asked what she was doing she replied, “I am going to send these to Indonesia. I got a lot of gifts for Christmas, and my friends there don’t have any.” It was hard to imagine that this little girl who had come from nothing was willing to give away some of her gifts from her very first Christmas.

Jesse just sat back in awe; this was a day he had long been waiting for. His little girl was finally home in Canada with him, his family circle was growing, and this was going to be the first of many happy Christmases as a family.

~Kendra Rice

Tofino, British Columbia

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