Last Christmas Eve, my wife and I arrived at the family holiday gathering to learn that one of my sisters-in-law had a new foster son that was joining us for the celebration. As we unloaded the colorfully wrapped presents we had brought for everyone else and laid them under the tree, I realized that no one had brought anything for this new family member. This was no surprise—we hadn’t known he would be joining us. Then a happy thought hit me, and I beckoned to my wife.
After a few quick whispers in the hall, we discovered that we had an extra gift with us—all we needed to do was find a box and wrap it. I’m not sure why I happened to have extra vouchers for movie tickets with me that night, and I don’t in anyway believe that small gesture made a big difference for a 16-year-old foster kid. What struck me that evening was the tradition from which that spontaneous gift came. You see, my family has often scurried into the hall to discuss a present for an unexpected guest arriving on Christmas. Mom always kept a few gifts tucked away in a closet “just in case”—not out of a sense of obligation but out of a sense of compassion, a willingness to fully accept the unexpected stranger on any day—especially a holy holiday like Christmas.
This year, my new nephew will be joining me and my in-laws once again on Christmas Eve, and everyone will have gifts for him. He’s a part of the family now, no longer a stranger. The following day, my family will convene at my home, and we’ll be exchanging gifts as usual. That day, we will have another guest—not a stranger, but someone whom none of us have seen for a long time, a dear friend of mine, elderly, single, from across the country and with no family to enjoy on Christmas this year. We will be his family.
Of course, I checked with my mom and sister to make sure they were open to adding my elderly friend to this year’s holiday gathering. They are happy to make room for one more and eager to make sure no one we know gets left out on Christmas. Speaking to my Mom today, I thanked her for being so open, and I also thanked her for teaching me by example how to care for others in this way. That’s when I learned something I didn’t know.
“It’s something I learned from my mom,” Mom replied to my offering of thanks. I hadn’t known. You see, Grandma and Grandpa never had much to share. It seemed like money was always tight for them, and I know Grandpa often worked two jobs or took on double shifts in order to raise my mom and her two sisters. But today I learned that Grandma always found a way to care for the strangers who came to her door.
The specific story Mom told me today was about Easter, not Christmas, but the same rules applied. One year, a cousin of Mom’s came to stay with them on the Saturday before Easter, and Mom remembers clearly seeing Grandma leave the house at 9:00p.m. on Holy Saturday, in a time before an all-night big-box store could be found in Salina, Kansas. And the next morning, Mom, her two sisters and the cousin all had Easter baskets. Grandma knew the importance of inclusion, and the inconvenience of finding a gift late on a Saturday night didn’t keep her from including a young niece or nephew who needed more than a safe place to stay the night before Easter.
Today, I learned more about my heritage, and I am proud. I am proud to be the daughter and granddaughter and great-granddaughter of women who have always welcomed the stranger. I’m proud to come from a tradition of giving, and no matter the size of my Christmas dinner or my December paycheck, I promise to always make room for those who need a family on a holy day. I hope that some of you who read this will be inspired to do so as well. If my great-grandma, who managed a farm during the Great Depression, and my grandma, who struggled to support her own family, and my mom, who always thought more for others than herself during the holidays, could be forever inviting, forever inclusive of others, so can we all.