8: The Best Gift

8: The Best Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

The Best Gift

Each should give according to what he has decided in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

~2 Corinthians 9:7

December 1969 was a bittersweet time for us. Paul and I had been married about four months. Despite a struggle to make ends meet, we delighted in our life together. We lived in an old apartment in central Winnipeg and did our best to put aside some money. Our savings plan was simple — we put our loose change into a bag, which we stowed in the glove compartment of our six-year-old Oldsmobile.

It was a time of economic recession and high unemployment, which affected many, including us. While my husband faced the situation squarely, searched the newspaper ads and headed out to apply for jobs, I was inclined to feel sorry for myself. We had dreamed of much better things.

After a business venture proved unsuccessful, Paul signed up to train as a pots-and-pans salesman. The morning he left for his first training session, I remained alone in our apartment. I completed a few chores and took stock of the food in the cupboard and the refrigerator — a lot of hamburger, wieners and macaroni. We didn’t regret the economical groceries, but what bothered me most was the looming fear that we would not be able to buy Christmas gifts for our family. I had been raised on thrift, but not on poverty. I didn’t want to face the relatives on Christmas day without gifts. That would mark me as the family loser.

Paul had not planned to come home for lunch, but he surprised me by walking in the door, followed by a thin, fair-haired man in his thirties. He introduced me to Hans, another sales trainee. A friendly, cheerful man, he greeted me cordially and explained he was an immigrant from The Netherlands. He and his family had lived in Canada only a few months. Paul had obviously invited him home to lunch. I served soup and sandwiches, while making a mental note to advise Paul not to bring guests home for meals until we were better off financially.

Later that day, after Paul arrived home, he shared some information with me.

“Linda, we think we are hard up, but Hans and his family have no money to buy groceries. His wife has sugar and flour in the house, so she has been making biscuits for them, but I don’t think he has been eating at all. He’s leaving all the food for his wife and kids. I couldn’t afford to take him to a restaurant, so I brought him home to lunch.”

My self-pity vanished in one instant.

My good-hearted and resourceful husband had already made a plan. The next day he drove Hans to the Salvation Army. Hans was embarrassed. “I have never begged for anything before; I have always worked.”

“Let me do the talking,” advised Paul. “Pretend you don’t speak English.”

The Salvation Army worker listened sympathetically as Paul told of his friend’s hardship; he willingly offered a food voucher. Next the two men went shopping. Paul, who was more comfortable in a grocery store, chose healthy vegetables, fruit, meat and milk.

At Hans’ small rented house, his wife Anna and their four lively children were overwhelmed with surprise. Now they would have well-rounded meals, certainly better than eating biscuits all the time.

Since pots-and-pans sales were not as brisk as the two men had hoped, they turned their attention back to job applications. When Paul and I visited Hans and Anna two days before Christmas, Hans had good news. He had found work in his field of building maintenance, and his job would start on Christmas Day.

By this time the Salvation Army groceries were depleted. Hans, as usual, was unwilling to ask for handouts. Paul had no such qualms.

“I’m going to the Christmas Cheer Board tomorrow and ask them for a hamper for you,” he said. “That will give you food for few more days. Why don’t you ask your employer for an advance on your pay?”

“Would he do that?” asked Hans with surprise.

“If you explained why you need it, he would probably give it to you. It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

The next morning, true to his word, Paul and I drove to the Christmas Cheer Board office. Unfortunately, we learned they had just sent out the last hamper.

Disappointed, we went back to the car, and headed out of town on our planned visit to my parents’ home.

“I feel bad,” remarked Paul sadly. “I wish we had something to give them.”

I glanced at the glove compartment. “We have the money that we saved,” I said brightly. I opened the glove compartment, pulled out the bag of change, and started to count it.

“There’s over seventeen dollars here,” I announced. “Let’s go shopping.”

It was enough to buy a bag of groceries. We stopped at a market and purchased a small turkey, fruit, vegetables and milk, as well as a bag of candy canes for the children. With happy hearts, we took them to our friends.

They received our gift with both relief and gratitude.

Hans quietly led Paul into another room. “You don’t know how much this means to us,” he said when they were alone. “I was ready to go out and rob a grocery store.”

After a short visit we continued our journey out of town, with a feeling of contentment. It was the only gift we gave that Christmas, a small present from one penniless family to another. To our regret, we had no gifts to offer our family members, but looking back from more prosperous times, we realize that the small bag of food that we gave to Hans and Anna and their children that day was without question the best gift we have ever given.

~Linda M. Carpentier

Swan River, Manitoba

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