12/20/2012 11:56 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

The Heart of Christmas Past


Australia is one of the first places in the world to ring in Christmas. So it seems fitting to reflect on a holiday not so long ago that was celebrated in Lismore, New South Wales on Dec. 25, 1869. The newspapers tell us that it was a lovely summer day. A certain grey-eyed grandmother was busy creating the traditions that she shared with her three-generation clan.

Every year since they had migrated north from the gold fields, Agnes McMillan celebrated Christmas with a plum pudding that she set aflame with brandy. Everyone knew what was coming next. A small coin had been surreptitiously placed inside. Whoever found it on his or her plate would be blessed with good luck for the coming year.

Agnes already considered herself a lucky woman. She knew what it felt like to be homeless and hungry. Thirty-three years earlier, at age 15, she had been shipped from Glasgow to Van Diemen's Land, present-day Tasmania. She had made the mistake of stealing some warm stockings during a particularly harsh Scottish winter. For this crime of poverty, she would pay dearly, with seven years of indentured servitude and exile for life. Yet she went on to lead her life with grace and dignity, along with her husband William, who had been transported from London for pilfering some coins.

The determined couple built a good life from nothing, rejoicing in the hope and promise that carried them from Great Britain's slums to Australia's lush coastal hinterlands. They counted their blessings in each family member seated around the handmade cedar table. What more did they need? They found the true meaning of Christmas by keeping it simple and precious. They were among the incredibly strong and resilient generation that helped build modern Australia. They offer so many lessons that seem more relevant today than ever.

Agnes' story reminds me of gifts that endure the test of time, gifts that can't be bought in a store: enjoying a walk as a family, sharing stories and laughter over a plate of freshly-baked sweets, finding joy in traditions like plum pudding with the recipe passed on from one generation to the next. Perhaps I live in a time warp, but sometimes it seems as though we're running so fast to the shopping mall that we're forgetting why we're going. We don't need more "stuff." We don't need more trinkets produced in China.

With so much done electronically, a handmade card is a treasured dinosaur, but my family knows that making one means the world to me. I've been introduced to creative gift ideas like coupons for babysitting, for cleaning a garage, or for a fully-prepared meal delivered from my kitchen to a friend's. Singing in a choir, being a kind neighbor, volunteering for a community project, donating time to a homeless shelter or a food van: These are tried-and-true gifts from the heart that return dividends we can't even begin to quantify or measure.

As Christmas 2012 nears, with challenging times for so many, there are more opportunities than ever to lift our collective spirits: extending compassion and help to those who have been ignored or misunderstood, feeling thankful for what we have rather than what we're missing, passing on to our children the richness and reward embedded in these values.

Harkening back to the heart of Christmas in 1869, time spent with loved ones was the treasured centerpiece. This year, I hope to follow the example of an unlikely hero named Agnes McMillan and rejoice in the essence of a season that celebrates and strengthens our family ties alongside the humanity we can so easily extend to one another.

For more by Deborah Swiss, click here.

For more on the spirit, click here.

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