12/20/2011 04:23 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2012

A Christmas Feast Past and Present

"The misery endured during those four months at Donner Lake in our little dark cabins under the snow would fill pages and make the coldest heart ache. Christmas was near, but to the starving, its memory gave no comfort."

So wrote Virginia Reed forty years after she was trapped as a child in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with the Donner Party of 1846. Already trapped two months, they were in dire circumstances. December 25th, Patrick Breen recorded in his diary that it had begun to snow about 12 o'clock the day before:

"snowd all night & snows yet rapidly. Great difficulty in getting wood. offerd our prayers to God this Cherimass morning. the prospect is apalling but hope in God."

The prospect was appalling but, in the Reeds' shelter, there were unexpected glad tidings.

"My mother had determined weeks before that her children should have a treat on this one day," Virginia Reed continued. "She had laid away a few dried apples, some beans, a bit of tripe, and a small piece of bacon. When this hoarded store was brought out, the delight of the little ones knew no bounds. The cooking was watched carefully, and when we sat down to our Christmas dinner mother said, 'Children, eat slowly, for this one day you can have all you wish.'"

Imagine the Reed children, Virginia 13, Patty, 9, James, 6, Tommy, 4, clustered around the kettle, their faces bending close to smell the unexpected feast, the dim cabin filling with unaccustomed sounds -- children's noise -- shrieks of "There's mine," as a bean surfaced, bobbing in the swirling broth.

"Eat slowly, children, this one day you may have all that you wish."

Of course, there wasn't plenty for all, but that day it seemed a Christmas feast. In that setting, it was a Christmas feast. In their context of deprivation, they were able to truly see, appreciate, and savor what they had.

"So bitter was the misery relieved by that one bright day," Virginia wrote four decades later, "that I have never sat down to a Christmas dinner without my thoughts going back to Donner Lake.

Flash forward 165 years: At this moment, my son-in-law is at the stove making enchiladas and a two-gallon pot of refried beans -- part of a Mexican feast he is serving us tonight, a few days before Christmas. Eight grandchildren, the oldest 10, race through the rooms, filling the house with "children's noise." The tree sparkles, the fridge overflows. In our context of plenty, our challenge also is to truly see, appreciate, and savor what we have.

Like everyone else, we're making economies this year, trying to resist the omnipresent lure of advertising to buy bigger, better, more -- to keep things in perspective. But our family's Christmas will never be like the Reeds, their day spent in a squalid underground shelter, watching with anticipation and delight their dinner's few beans bobbing and bubbling.

But it's not as if the misery relieved that day by Margret Reed's surprise "feast" is only a touching Christmas story from pioneer times. There are hungry children in our towns today. Their hunger is called "food insecurity," one of the most heartless euphemisms ever coined, and you need only visit a food bank or a shelter to see what that term means. One in 45 children have no home to sleep in this holiday, no roof for Santa to visit, no "security" for their next meal.

Often the world's miseries seem too overwhelming, our efforts to relieve them too paltry. But Christmas celebrates a baby's birth and is, at its deepest level, a time of renewed hope. I want to keep in mind -- and to help my children and grandchildren keep in mind -- that long-ago, almost magical pot with its handful of beans in which Margret Reed, in nearly hopeless circumstances, kept hope, surprise, and possibility alive for her children.

"Eat slowly, children, this one day you may have all you wish."

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