Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
During this holiday season, we would like to share one of our favorite holiday Kerrying On articles and invite you to watch for opportunities to help those in need.
Over twenty years ago, I received the most amazing Christmas gift. Today I share it with you.
It was December of 1984 and my wife and children and I were eagerly shopping for a teenage boy we had never met. This particular shopping spree was part of a sub-for-Santa adventure we and four other families were undertaking. This was the third year in a row the gang of us had agreed to help a needy family (this year it was a mother, father, and five children) and we approached the task with our usual mix of joy and anxiety. Could we truly help someone? Would we be a blessing in their lives or would we disappoint them?
Two days later, we nervously gathered presents, food, and clothing, piled into our cars, and drove through a constant drizzle to a small house that sported the address given to us by the local relief agency. “It looks small,” said my oldest daughter as five cars chock-full of parents and children pulled up to the house.
Gingerly we carried the boxes to the front porch. (Later my oldest daughter revealed that you could see four noses pressed against the window as the family’s younger children looked on in excitement.) Not knowing exactly what to do, we eventually all gathered in the freezing rain and started to sing Christmas carols. At the end of the second carol, the father of the clan took pity on us, stepped out into the rain, and begged all of us to please come in. “In where?” I thought as I looked around at the crowd and figured if we all went inside, we’d explode the house.
Minutes later as we stood cheek to jowl, the father began to talk. He explained that he had undergone back surgery earlier that year and hadn’t been able to return to work quite yet. It hadn’t been an easy choice, but he had decided that if they were to have any presents for the kids, he’d have to call on one of the local agencies, which he did. He thanked us copiously for answering the call.
“Now, in turn for your presents, I offer you one of my own—in the form of a story,” he continued.
“Eight years ago when we had only two children and I was just getting started in my career, we were facing a rather meager Christmas. We bought my oldest son, who was eight at the time, and his sister who was four, two presents. One was a pair of socks, the other a toy. My son had asked for a basketball, and from the size and shape of his two packages under the tree, there would be no surprise for him that year.” The son, who was now a gawky teenager standing shyly in the hallway, nodded in agreement.
“One evening two days before Christmas I came home with an announcement.” The father continued. “A new family had moved in not far from our house, and since they didn’t have two pennies to rub together, they wouldn’t be having a Christmas. They had a boy and girl the same ages as our family and I was thinking that maybe we could share Christmas with them.
“‘We could each give them one of our two presents,’ my wife suggested as our two children looked on in suspicion.”
“Finally, after staring at his two presents under the tree for what seemed like ten minutes, my son walked over, picked up the package containing the basketball, and said, ‘I’ll share this one.’ Each of us then grabbed one of our two presents, put it in a box, and carried our gift down to our new neighbors who seemed very grateful.”
As he told the story I noticed that my own children were fixed on him, their eyes brimming with tears as they thought of how these people had sacrificed so dearly.
“Later that day,” the father continued to explain, “I received a phone call from my local church leader. It turned out that there were a few families in our little church group that didn’t have any money for Christmas that year. A group of generous people had put together several boxes of presents and food for the needy families. Since I was driving a rather large and beat-up station wagon that had a lot of hauling space, he asked if I would be so kind as to drive to the church on Christmas Eve, load up the wagon, and make the various deliveries. ‘Besides,’ my church leader explained, ‘your two young ones will get a kick out of playing Santa.’
“I immediately agreed to lend a hand. But I knew in so doing I was in trouble. I hung up the phone and explained to my family what I had committed to do, and then shared with them the challenge. We had spent all of our money on Christmas, and the station wagon was almost out of gas. We’d have to find a way to raise some cash to fill the gas tank to make the deliveries.”
“‘We could collect soda pop bottles,’ my daughter quickly suggested. That’s what she had seen her older brother do in order to raise a few pennies. This, of course, was at a time that if you retrieved a discarded pop bottle by the side of the road and took it to a local grocery store they’d give you two cents for it.
“So it was agreed. We bundled up against the wind and snow and all day long the day of Christmas Eve we hunted for bottles. Finally, just before we were due to make the deliveries, we cashed in the bottles, put a couple of gallons of gas into the old wagon, and drove over to the church.”
“As our church leader loaded box after box filled with beautifully wrapped presents into our dilapidated vehicle, my son and daughter looked on in wonder. They sniffed the air with a look of longing as he loaded in a carton containing freshly baked pies and a ham along with all the trimmings. They squished over to the edge of their seat as the boxes stacked one upon the other until our wagon was filled to bursting.”
“Our church leader handed me an envelope containing a list of the various names and addresses of the people we were to visit, and then thanked us profusely for helping with the deliveries. As he drove off I opened the envelope to see the extent of the task in front of us. The small piece of paper I found inside the envelope contained but one name and address. It was ours.”
As the humble man finished his story, those of us who had come to help his family were either openly crying or doing a poor job of holding back tears. I was completely humbled as I envisioned this sweet man and woman and their two children bracing against the wind and searching for bottles—doing their very best to help the needy.
What made the story all the more wonderful was that the gentleman telling it did his best to make the church leader and the other generous members of his congregation out to be the heroes—look how nice they had been to his family, he had explained, just as we were now being nice to them this year.
It had never occurred to the man we had come to help that as thoughtful as his church friends had been to him and his family, our motley sub-for-Santa gang looked on him and his children with a genuine sense of amazement. They were the ones who shared their Christmas. They were the ones who, as others drank cocoa by the fireplace or stirred fudge in the kitchen, trudged through frozen fields in a quest for two-cent treasures. They were the true heroes and didn’t even know it.
My family and I count this sweet experience as our favorite holiday gift. It’s a present that will live with us forever.