I grew up in a wild and crazy Italian and Irish family who seemed to compete for who could yell the loudest or be the most dramatic. We were all about family, food and celebrating. Never was this more evident than during the Christmas season. My mother began baking dozens of varieties of Christmas cookies the day after Thanksgiving. The decorative tins piled higher and higher on our breakfront as the days of advent wore on. She baked, decorated, shopped, hosted every family dinner and was completely expert at all of it. She loved drama and the holiday season gave her plenty of it.
But one Christmas morning, my brother and I pushed her to her limit. See, Santa had made a mistake that year. I had asked specifically for an Erector Set. Remember those? It was this amazing set of metal pieces that hinged and hooked and allowed for the creation of the most exciting towers and fortresses. Loved that!
I woke to a doll. Huh? My brother woke to the Erector Set! Double huh?
The battle ensued for ownership of this toy. My mother was at her wits' end. She tried asking us not to fight, begging, screaming. Nothing worked. I wanted this toy and my brother was having none of it.
Finally, my furious mother warned us that if we continued to argue, we would be forced to pack up all our shiny new presents and donate them to St. Michael's Home for Children in Hopewell, New Jersey.
Oh, sure, we thought, and continued to argue.
My mother stood, hands on hips, as we packed up all our new gifts and loaded them in the car. She stood by the car as we walked, gifts in hands, up the steps to the door of St. Michael's. She watched as we handed over our treasures, with forced smiles on our faces to children less fortunate than us.
When I tell this story, people see my mother as harsh. At that moment, as a kid, so did I. But all these years later, with perfect rearview vision, I see the lesson my mother taught me. I see how she altered my view of Christmas and holiday madness.
On that fateful Christmas, I looked into the eyes of the kids at St. Michael's and saw pure joy at their unexpected good fortune. I felt, maybe for the first time in my life, the pure joy that only comes with giving and being of service. Although I had lost... and lost big in my childish view, I felt somehow different. I had made someone's day. I did not understand it, but I loved it.
My mother had taught me the true spirit of Christmas, maybe not consciously, but she taught us, with what most consider a tough punishment, how it felt to put someone else's needs before our own selfishness.
It was a lesson not lost on me.
At the time of year when everyone is talking a good story about helping others, peace on earth and good will, let's put it into practice and not just talk.
From Christmas trees to Hanukkah candles to solstice and Kwanzaa lights, this time of year is called the "season of light" because it stands as a reminder that life renews itself in a great continuum of energy. The shortest day comes to a close; the next morning dawns, extending the light, just for a moment or two. Each subsequent day lengthens and brings with it new hope.
What if we turned ourselves into "beings of light"? What if we became the change we want to see in the world?
That may sound more ambitious and difficult than resolving to go to the gym, give up meat or quit smoking... or put the needs of others before our own, but in reality, it's not. Beings of light are simply those people who make the world a better place. Think about it. When someone smiles at you, for no reason, you feel happy. That person was a being of light and your world became a better place. Help someone off the bus with their groceries and you became a being of light, making their world... and yours... a little sweeter.
Imagine that we all do just one kindness a day, one thing that improves someone's world. No judgment. Imagine the light that would shine from neighborhood to neighborhood, throughout communities and cities, from coast to coast, all over the world.
You may be thinking this is simplistic. The problems we face are so large, so ominous... Can smiling at a stranger create the kind of change we need now? We won't know unless we try and with all that light we generate, we just may see our way to a better world... And what began on the steps of an orphanage on a snowy Christmas day so many years ago will live on and on.