Serving Up the Christmas Spirit

LAST Christmas my children and I sifted through the rituals we'd formed over the years since my husband's death. It was time to clean house, to start fresh. What did we want to keep doing, what did we want to change? My son, Dylan, and my daughter, Hallie, wanted everything to stay the same. It took concentrated persuasion to get them to consider shuffling the order of events on any holiday.

With minimal disagreement, though, we decided to clear Christmas for something brand new. We looked at the newspapers for places that needed help on Christmas day. Knowing that helping someone in need is a delicate task, I was ambivalent about offering our services. Pride is an important thing to be able to keep when you need help.

Part of me knew I was the one in need of some redefinition of the Christmas spirit. I still watched for the most impossible things to happen, especially during the holidays. I looked for signs of miracles everywhere. Would a dormant rosebush burst into bloom? Would a shooting star grace the cold night sky? Did a miracle exist that would be ``enough'' for my expectations?

In the paper, there were opportunities to sing. This intrigued my daughter. But my son and I, being more realistic about our voices, decided we couldn't do this - best not to embarrass ourselves and the people to whom we'd be singing.

A synagogue in the city was serving meals on Christmas. They needed servers. This, I suggested to my children, was something we could do together. We all knew how to carry plates.

We rose early Christmas morning and examined stocking contents. On the drive to Portland, hawks swooped down through fog to fields stilled for the day by a lack of human activity.

A burst of unseasonably warm weather had forced a few cherry blossoms to bloom on trees near the synagogue. Wide city streets were empty. My son noticed several bird's nests. How many times had I come to the city and been so busy crossing streets that I'd never looked up into the branches of a tree? How many small miracles had I overlooked while searching only for the big ones?

The building where we were to serve food was warm. We shed our coats and stood uncomfortably among strangers waiting for instructions. A few people had wandered in to sit and wait for meals at decorated tables. It was as though there were an invisible wall between the servers and the served. These were the people in need, and we were there to help them. But there were so many servers that we were encouraged to sit down and eat until the room filled up.

My son didn't want to sit, so he went with a few older gentlemen to pour coffee and serve dinners. Often it is easier to help than to be a recipient. My daughter was hungry. She and I sat at a table in the center of the room.

Who did I think I would be ``helping'' this day? Older men and women, alone and in pairs, walked through the doors. A few young people came in with well-worn backpacks and sleeping rolls. A family like ours, except with three hungry children instead of two, sat at the table behind us.

An older man and woman sat at our table. He had on a crisp white shirt and a blue bow tie studded with tiny stars. He, like my daughter, didn't say much, but his wife and I talked about growing up in Portland, about the changes in a city we knew so well.

When it got more crowded, I served for a while, but Hallie stayed at the table. Perhaps the other servers had come in with the same feelings I had, that everyone here who sat down was homeless and hungry. At one point, Hallie had three glasses of milk, two different kinds of pie, a full plate of turkey, a roll and real butter. Clearly she'd settled herself in the ``hungry'' camp and was not about to return to being a server. People swarmed around her bringing what she asked for and what she didn't. I'd glance over every few minutes and she'd grin and wave.

I'd serve a bit, then sit. Gradually the line between server and served became blurred. I found myself happily accepting the coffee someone poured for me and singing along with the man playing carols on the piano. I talked with the lady in the pink knit suit at the table next to mine. Her children were all on the East Coast, and she'd come to dinner to be with people. I poured coffee for a man who said he hadn't eaten in two days.

The warmth and companionship of that day affected us all. My daughter was simply full. My son was almost feverish from praise that had been poured on him for his swiftness and his ability to fill a coffee cup before it was empty. I felt the kind of contentment that comes from enjoying someone's company without any expectations for the future or the present.

We carried our gratitude outside where three men leaned on shopping carts and sang ``Silent Night.''

To serve and be served, to be with people, to hear carols on the piano, to feel contentment in a moment had filled our family with more than food and had given our world a rightness. Perhaps this was the miracle I'd been seeking for so many years past.

A student once told me that on the day she'd given up her search for God, she'd found solace in a raindrop, and discovered God there too. Since last Christmas I've done less and less searching for miracles. I've had more recognition of those that are found in the unexpected, right within my arm's reach.

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