Giving and getting … a Christmas mystery

The author's son Nick, with Santa and Mrs. Claus in a 2014 photo.
This article appears in the Christmas 2015 feature series. View the full series.

We Cradle Catholics are often called out for our adeptness at guilt.

From my experience -- growing up in Catholic schools and parishes -- there is no time of year more ripe for guilt-creating experiences than Christmas time.

Every year, during November and December, we were reminded by our pastor to dig deep for the second collection at Mass, for the children starving in Africa. Or India. Or Peru.

One Sunday evening, when I was 7 years old and had listened with great seriousness to the details of the famished Peruvian children, I quietly rummaged through my mother's desk, and brought a plain white envelope with me to the dinner table. After we said grace, I calmly loaded the lima beans off of my plate and into the envelope.

I was just licking the envelope, when I was surprised by my mother yelling at me: "What the Sam Hill do you think you are doing with those lima beans?"

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Only, our mother never said "What the Sam Hill" in her life. Our Mom swore a blue streak as only Catholic mothers can. She was very much like the father character in the movie "A Christmas Story," in that her children learned all our best cuss words from her, but of course, we blamed our friends as the source.

I looked up, startled, and candidly, not a little chagrined to have to explain myself. It seemed so obvious, after Fr. Kelly's stirring homily. In hindsight, my response may have been a bit too casual, as it all seemed pretty self-evident to me.

I said: "Uh, Mom. The kids in Peru are starving. These are Lima beans. Lima. Peru."

She just stared at me, the whites of her eyes showing completely.

I continued: "Well, clearly, I don't like their beans. They need their beans. I am sending them back. It's a no-brainer!"

The speed with which my mother ripped open that envelope and poured those beans back onto my plate was impressive. I clearly hadn't presented the logic of my position well enough. I opened my mouth to try to explain more fully, but she held up one finger, and said through clenched teeth: "Eat. Your. Sam-Hill. Beans!"

I sighed a deep and disillusioned sigh, and stared at the green mound on my plate. As far as I was concerned, my solution had been both sound and righteous. I considered lima beans to be one of the least appetizing food items imaginable. Dry. Pulpy. A lot like little green cutouts of particle board.

But the people in Peru must like them. They grow them, put them in cans, ship them to the United States. They named these beans after their nation's capital, for Sam-Hill's sake!

However, my frustration about my brilliant "Return the Beans Program" being thwarted was nothing compared to the guilt I felt about Christmas day itself.

For at least four weeks, leading up to Christmas, we had that assemble-and-tape-yourself Missions Box in the middle of our kitchen table. My parents put dollar bills in the slot, and my brothers and I stuffed all of our extra nickels and dimes in there, too.

To be completely truthful, this sacrifice of our pocket change was not so hard in the winter, when there is not the enticing jingle of the ice cream truck at dusk to compete with those blurry photos of multi-hued kids with giant pleading eyes, on all four sides and the top of that little paper box.

There were a multitude of other Christmas giving opportunities, as well.

Our mother compelled us to go through our closets, and glean out last year's jackets and stuff them into plastic garbage bags for the Christmas coat drive.

When she took us Christmas shopping, we each had to pick out one extra reasonably-priced toy or game, which we deposited into the big Toys for Tots drum at the Knights of Columbus.

Mom asked me to stand behind her as she crouched in the pantry and handed back to me the cans of Campbell's soup, corned beef hash, and yes, lima beans, among other vegetables, which I was to stack in paper grocery sacks. When we had a couple of bags, these too we delivered to the huge Christmas-wrapped cardboard boxes in the foyer of St. Euphrasia church.

After that whole entire month of thinking of others, and concerted cleaning out and giving away, I was feeling pretty full of myself. The little chalkboard of my soul had been wiped pretty dang sparkling clean with all that selflessness.

Then on Christmas morning, my self-assuredness was smudged all to Sam Hill!

Of course, I loved that rush of coming downstairs to see the great pile of goodies that Santa had left for me and my three little brothers. Of course I loved tearing off the wrapping paper, to display our new treasures. Of course I still remember my best gift that year: a purple bike -- without training wheels, thank you -- that had a banana seat with mod flowers, and a sissy bar with a multi-color tassel hanging from it, even!

Yes, those bright new shiny things were wonderful. But I was instantly and deeply torn.

What about all those starving kids? The ones who needed our spare change, our canned goods, our old coats? What were their Christmas mornings like? Were they warm? Were they fed? Were they safe?

And weren't those kids way more like Baby Jesus than I was ever going to be, with my very own bedroom and new banana seat bike? He was a poor little boy in Israel. Born on the hay in a manger, with a bunch of farm animals staring at him, for Sam Hill's sake!

The swell of guilt was pretty overwhelming for this 7-year-old Catholic girl.

I am a grown up Catholic lady now, a wife and a mom and a grandmother. I want my husband and kids and grandkids to unwrap the gifts I give them, and feel just how much I love them.

And on Christmas morning, we still wake up to newly filled stockings. Our son Nick -- who is 27 and has autism -- is like a tall 7-year-old, and is Santa's most devoted fan. His innocence and enthusiasm warms us as we watch him pull the gifts from his stocking. That moment is the fulcrum around which Nick's entire year turns. Santa is good, Nick is blissful, and it is wonderful to behold.

Nick doesn't seem to feel guilt. That is a pretty complex emotion, after all. He seems to experience only pure delight, about his gifts, yes, but more about the magical idea that Santa remembered him, and came through for him, just like last year. What a guy.

Perhaps this is the gift that Nick brings to me.  

That Christmas is a funny mix of giving and getting. And that maybe my annual Christmas-time guilt isn't really necessary, or even helpful.

It might be enough that each day, all year round, I just try to remember to do my best. To be aware of those in need, nearby and far away. To keep my ears, eyes and heart open to opportunities for random kindness, as well as organized generosity.  

And to remember that yes, Jesus was born in a stable. When he reached manhood, he decided to give away what he did have. He relied upon the kindness of strangers. He accepted gifts from others. And in return, gave us back infinitely more.

Christmas is about this mystery of both giving and getting. That poor kid from Israel grew up and by the grace of charity -- and of God -- Jesus forever changed heaven, earth, and us. What a guy.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

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