A big part of my Christmas decorating is putting out the miniature village. There are houses, stores, a church, gas station, and diner, among other buildings. Figures of people, gas lamps, trees and other miscellaneous items fill out the tableau. It’s quite a mix—a hodge podge collection of buildings and people from different periods. And because they’re all from different manufacturers, nothing is in scale. Nevertheless, Husband and I think it’s beautiful.
I have a tradition of putting out the small ceramic Nativity set first, followed by my favorite piece—three figures ringing the bell with the Salvation Army kettle.
That piece didn’t start out as my favorite, but after an encounter with a young woman several years ago, the piece took on a special meaning for me.
Many years ago, I worked at the Salvation Army as director of a transitional living facility for families who were homeless. I loved the work, but after a few years of 24/7 on-call, pulling an overnight shift when someone called off, and just working in crisis all of the time, my family rebelled and wanted me home more. So, I moved on to an administrative position elsewhere in the community.
My heart was still with the Salvation Army, and the people it helped, so every Christmas, I volunteered to “stand kettle”, as the Salvation Army refers to ringing the bell and collecting donations. I loved talking with the people who stopped to chat while putting their donations in the kettle; so many of them had stories to tell of how the organization had helped them or someone in their family.
Shortly before I moved to another part of the state, one young woman in particular made a gesture that I will forever cherish.
As the young woman entered the lobby of the grocery store where I was standing, she handed her little girl some coins and sent her over to drop them in the kettle. Parents frequently send their little ones over to put the coins in the slot; the children get excited and it’s a good introduction to charity for the kids. I smiled as I always did and thanked the little girl. Her mother met my gaze, no expression on her face, but she locked eyes with me for just an extra beat before turning to walk into the store.
Sometime later, the same little girl came nearly running up to me, a big smile on her face. Wordlessly, she held out a small brown paper bag. I waited for her to say something, but she just continued smiling and shook the bag a little.
“Is that for me?” I asked. Her smile got bigger as she bobbed her head up and down. Puzzled, I reached out and took the bag. I opened it and found a sandwich, an apple, a can of pop, and a bag of chips. Lunch. For me. I was speechless. I looked over at the mom, where she was standing off to the side as she had earlier. I smiled at her with what I’m sure was a perplexed look on my face.
She slowly walked over to me. “Thank you,” I said, with tears starting to form in my eyes.
“You’re welcome,” she said. She hesitated, and then told me her story. “Several years ago, I was in a bad place in my life, and I had no one to help us. I went to the Salvation Army, and they helped me when no one else could. I’m doing well now, things are good for us. That wouldn’t have happened without them. I just wanted to say thank you.” Her face was serious, intense; I could see how important it was to her to make this gesture.
I was stunned, simply dumbstruck. Although I worked professionally in social services, spending my career trying to help families overcome their difficulties, I rarely had the chance to know what happened to the families in the long-term. Most of the time, I worked on faith, praying that whatever assistance I provided would put the families on the path to better days.
Yet here, in this grocery store, standing kettle as a volunteer, I was the recipient of an act of such deep gratitude and kindness that I couldn’t say much more than “Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that you and your little girl are doing well.”
But she seemed to understand. She nodded, and kept her eyes locked on mine again as she had before. For just that brief time, we made a deep connection. She took her little girl’s hand and said “Merry Christmas” and she was gone.
I sat down at my chair and ate my lunch, the baloney sandwich and potato chips tasting better than any meal I had ever had in a fancy restaurant.
That is how the figurine made of ceramic and metal has become a reminder to me of the very real difference we can all make in someone’s life. Whether we drop some coins into the Salvation Army kettle, or place a few bills in the collection plate at church, or send off a check to our favorite charity, we are creating opportunities for our fellow human beings to turn their lives around from whatever bad place they’ve landed in and make a new start. A small deed on our part can have a life-changing result for someone else. For me, that is the happiest holiday of all.