How My Dad's Tradition Made Me More Thankful This Christmas

On Christmas day this year I did something a little different; I went over to the Salvation Army. The night before, Christmas Eve, we went to a huge family gathering with my husband’s family. We had planned to have Christmas with my family on Christmas day, but the flu took down our Christmas matriarch (my mom), and my three-year-old hadn’t been feeling well either, so Christmas day ended up being a day for rest. Last year my dad had started a new tradition at our church of preparing and serving Christmas dinner at the Salvation Army. Since Lodi Live is focusing on traditions of giving back this holiday season, I decided to join him for a couple of hours. Plus it made it a lot easier now that we had no plans for the day.

My dad, Jeff, started this Christmas tradition with the First United Methodist Church in Lodi (FUMC). We like to tease him that he started doing this to get a break from the family, and while that probably influenced his decision, we know it was about more than that. I arrived at the Salvation Army around 4:00 in the afternoon, right before they started serving. They were serve two rounds of dinner on Christmas. The first round of dinner was served to the residents who live at Salvation Army and the second round to people who are living on the streets. The Salvation Army does a lot to help people. Their services are unique to the needs of each community, but their mission is to meet human needs. In Lodi, the Salvation Army helps meet the most basic needs of people living on the streets and they also help folks who are actively working hard to improve their lives by providing transitional housing. There were about 30 people from FUMC who came on Christmas day to feed people. 15 folks came earlier in the day to help prepare the meal and 15 folks came later in the day to help serve. They planned to serve just over a hundred people total. On the menu for dinner was ham, au gratin potatoes, string beans with a sauce on top (so they were similar to string bean casserole), fruit cocktail, rolls, and for dessert, pumpkin pie.

During the short break, before getting ready to serve, I chatted with my dad and some of the other people who would be serving. They were joking around, poking fun at themselves because the Salvation Army’s culinary team had to intervene and help them out in the kitchen. It was honestly kind of difficult to get some honest answers out them about why they were here because they were too busy laughing and teasing each other about who would or wouldn’t need reading glasses to put whip cream on the pies. My dad is also infamously tight lipped, so trying to pry anything out of him is a feat. “It’s a chance to give back to people who are less fortunate,” said my dad (finally). “Why did I come? Because my wife came,” Larry joked “We came last year and it was good. It makes you feel good.” “It makes me sad, on a holiday especially, to see somebody without family or friends around,” Kathy said. “It’s a way to give back and give some holiday cheer today, especially when we have so much. I feel like I’m so blessed and I want to be able to share that with people.”

My dad started doing this last year because he wanted to do something to bring the focus back to the true meaning of Christmas. He loves a good dinner as much as anyone else, but he’s not a big fan of parties. I mean, I’m a lot more social than he is and I get pretty overwhelmed with all the parties and gift buying. Between my husband and I we had seven (seven!!) holiday parties, not including our family get togethers. And while I love the reason we have all of these parties (to be with those we love during the season) sometimes it gets really stressful and it’s easy to lose sight of true meaning of Christmas. “I think it’s a very rewarding experience to be here. Instead of sitting around looking at all the stuff you’ve bought, and all the food you have to eat. These are people who really appreciate what you’re here to do. They appreciate the food they’re about to eat, instead complaining about the roast not being done properly,” said my dad.

“It’s a reality check for all of us,” Mari, another family friend and volunteer, shared. “Not everybody sits at home on Christmas with their family or has the opportunity to do that.” “It was a reality check for me last year,” agreed Kathy. “One of the men in the transitional housing, his family, he had two or three children, came down from Grass Valley and they were here. And I just remember thinking afterwards, that I wish I had gone up to him and told him what a great example he was setting for his kids by being here and that I hoped he was successful.” Hearing that made me tear up. As a reminder, the transitional housing is for people who are working hard to improve their lives. They’ve had a life experience that left them homeless. Now here one man was, sober and working harder than he’s probably ever worked in life, having to accept help (which isn’t easy for most of us), and being vulnerable enough to open up and share that with kids. That’s hard. “I just think, what if it was us? Things can happen fast,” said Mari. What if it was someone you loved? You would want someone to be there for you or your loved one, so be there for those people.

All of this isn’t to poo poo getting together with family on Christmas. I’m not sharing this to suggest you shouldn’t enjoy being with your family on Christmas. Volunteering was only a couple of hours so everyone who helped on this day also spent time with their families. I am suggesting, if you have some time on Christmas to give back, I hope you take advantage of that time and do something that brings joy to those less fortunate. Call up a friend who is grieving this Christmas to let them know you’re thinking about them and you know today is a hard day for them. Bring flowers to someone at a hospital who can’t go home for Christmas and tell them you’re keeping their health in your thoughts. Bring cookies to workers, like our men and women in uniform, who can’t take the day off to be home with family. Or volunteer to feed at a homeless shelter, like my dad does. Share this act with someone you love, like your dad, or your mom, or your sibling, or friends, or people from church. Christmas is about being together and giving back with someone you love makes it that much more special. I promise you, it will make your Christmas better. Even if you’ve been doing great things all season, all this family time can be triggering. Spending some time giving back on Christmas day will help keep you grounded. Giving makes you appreciate how much you have to give. It will make every bite of your roast that much better, even if it is overcooked, it was overcooked with love for you. I’m so grateful I was able to visit the Salvation Army. When it was over, I was grateful to have a home to return to, even if it does feel impossible to keep clean right now. I was grateful for my husband, even if he did put the recycling in our trash bin (again), and my kids, even if my toddler has been throwing a tantrum for what sometimes seems like two months straight. I was also grateful for my dad  who started this tradition, and invited me to the Salvation Army to serve on Christmas, so I could come on this special day and appreciate all of the things I have to be grateful for.