Our family has a tradition that dates back longer than I can remember. It started with my mother's own childhood, growing up in Mountain Grove, Missouri. On the morning of December 24th, the first person to shout "Christmas Eve Gift!' wins. My family takes this pretty seriously — my enthusiastic younger brother has been known to call people minutes after midnight to declare "Christmas Eve Gift" victory.
The game is not unique to my family. If you Google "Christmas Eve Gift" (with the quotation marks), you'll get over 600,000 hits. I'm a working mother and didn't have time to read them all, but the handful I did peruse were sweet reminiscences much like mine in the paragraph above.
This friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly, sometimes downright ruthless) competition frustrated my husband to no end. 'What do you win?" he demanded. "Why is there no gift? This is lame!"
So, when we adopted the practice with our own daughter, I made sure there was always a gift. A funny, seasonal knick-knack (which I chose based on its appropriateness for any of us, but bought specifically for her since I always let her win). It might be a wind-up dancing elf, a small box of chocolates, an ornament, a Pooh Bear dreidel, or (her favorite) a tiny naked baby doll from Japan wearing a Santa hat. This year, it was an adorable felt donkey ornament. I figured it was close enough to a horse if my daughter won it. And, it's the symbol of the Democratic party if my liberal husband won.
As per Christmas Eve usual, the tween walked away with the prize. I don't think she was impressed. She told me, ever so sweetly, that she thought it would look better on the big tree downstairs and not on the smaller one in her room. Clearly the adorable ornament wasn't as adorable as I thought. Oh well.
That's all right; we have another annual tradition. My husband meets his best friend for lunch (if the long nap he takes each year afterwards is any indication, we are probably talking 'liquid lunch'). So, my daughter and I go out together for our own meal. This was especially fun back when I was working at an agency in Boston and rarely saw her midday. She was just three or four years old the first time we had our special Christmas Eve luncheon. We went to a chic and charming little bistro, called ... Friendly's.
That particular day, Friendly's was overcrowded and understaffed. There were a couple of waitresses who weren't moving very quickly, and one waiter, who seemed to be pulling most of the waitering weight. He was amiable and efficient, and even though the kitchen mixed up our sandwiches (how do you mix up grilled cheese?), he kept his sense of humor and made everything right.
We felt bad that he was working — and working so hard! — on Christmas Eve. So, we decided to leave him a "Special-Secret-Santa-Christmas-Eve-Tip." I went and paid at the register while my daughter wrote "MERRY CHRISTMAS" (phonetically) in crayon on her folded placemat. We slipped an over-the-top generous gratuity inside and raced out, giggling wildly.
From then on, we made a date for our Secret Santa lunch. Once Friendly's closed (after more than thirty years; my husband worked there as a teenager), we moved on to other local restaurants: Bertucci's, Pizzeria UNO. Each time, we made it a point to converse with our waitperson and find out what he or she was doing for the holiday. Each time, we left a regular tip for our meal plus a generous Christmas bonus. Each time, we ran out of the restaurant, thrilled with our little secret and laughing.
Last year, we went to a coffee shop in neighboring Salem. The joint was jammed and our waitress was terrific! She noticed that we had made a list on one of our napkins and asked if we were still shopping? No, I told her. The list included friends' houses at which we planned to drop off goodies on the way home.
She said that she herself was almost finished. She was a single mom, she explained, and just needed two more presents, the big ones, for her teenage son and daughter. When she got off at 5:00, she was going to rush over to the mall to get them each an iPod. It occurred to me that she had probably waited until the last minute to get these special gifts because she didn't have the cash sooner. My daughter and I were excited — it felt like we had hit Secret Santa pay dirt! We did what we could to contribute to the iPods and our giddy dash out of the restaurant was even more exhilarating than usual.
I enjoy most (all right, many, or at least some) meals with my daughter. But, I treasure the time we spend together at lunch every Christmas Eve. Joining forces to help someone is powerful stuff. We don't have the resources of Oprah or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, but we can make a difference in our way.
Maya Angelou once said, "I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver." I'll think of this as my daughter and I joyfully run down the street together after our lunch this afternoon.
May your soul find liberation and joy this Christmas Eve too.