Bringing Christmas

Bringing Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Book of Christmas Virtues

Bringing Christmas

Some of life’s events make permanent etchings on your soul.

Like the Christmas our family spent volunteering with the people of Santisimo Sacramento. Situated in the heart of Piura, Peru, this church was the lifeblood of the thirty-three thousand citizens it served. We spent long, hot days sorting and distributing clothes, tearing down and rebuilding a house, fixing donated bikes and becoming part of the community.

I don’t even have to close my eyes to remember endless sand dotted with scraggly trees, the truck’s horn competing with mangy, barking dogs, the smell of heat and sweat, and the gritty taste of dirt roads. And the children. Hundreds of big-eyed, bronze-skinned, dark-haired children chasing after us with the hope of youth.

Several times a day, bouncing along sand and gravel, we all struggled to hold on to the sides of the white pickup truck, laughing so hard that our smiles petrified above our wind-dried teeth. Ginet, our driver, laid on the horn with the jubilation of Robin Hood delivering goods to the poor, while villagers ran from all corners of the surrounding pueblos.

Our three children—Clare, Bridget and Michael— helped prepare barrels of chocolate milk and hundreds of buttered rolls for distribution in the villages and the prison.

One afternoon, we pulled up to a small, dusty church, skirted the ever-present dogs and rearranged rickety wooden benches on the cement floor. One hundred fifty children sat patiently, each with a cup brought from home, to receive the coveted treat. Mothers remained in the doorway, watching as their children participated in prayer and songs before they were served chocolate milk and a buttered roll.

Finally, each child received a token toy. In less than twenty minutes, their Christmas had come . . . and gone.

We trucked through the pueblo, distributing more toys. One tiny girl ran after us for a good two hundred yards. When she finally reached the driver’s side door, she was ecstatic to receive a small toy. As we drove on, an older girl grabbed the gift and left her sobbing among the crowd.

Distressed, at the next stop we explained what had happened and asked Ginet to drive back and search the village. At last, Clare and Bridget spotted the child outside her shack, still crying. When we replaced the toy, her smile was jubilant.

Naturally, questions haunted us during our stay:

How should we handle Christmas with our own children?

Would they expect gifts on Christmas morning?

Surrounded by such poverty, could we justify our giving and receiving?

As Steve and I pondered the situation and faced our choices, we couldn’t help making comparisons between these different cultural traditions.

We saw Christmas in Peru celebrated so simply—with Las Posadas to commemorate the journey of Mary and Joseph, bonfires, panettone (Italian bread) and leche de chocolate (hot cocoa). There were no Christmas trees, no gifts exchanged and no Santa Claus. The only reason for the season was the Holy Family and Christ’s birth. The focus was clearly on people, relationships and doing for others.

What greater gift could we give our own children?

In the end, we presented each with a tiny finger harp from Kenya and a small token from Santa. As a family, we spent Christmas morning writing down what we hoped for each other. Those scraps of paper and their thoughtful words remain priceless to this day, and our children still revel in the memory of that humble celebration.

We had gone to volunteer and bring Christmas to the poor. Instead, the villagers of Piura brought a richer, deeper sense of Christmas to us—Christmas without the trappings.

Toby Abraham-Rhine

More stories from our partners