’Tis the season, says this best-selling author, but this year don’t just celebrate, Make A Holiday For Someone.
You bring Popsicle sticks. You bring glitter. You bring boxes of donuts and inexpensive pizza. You bring stuffed animals, donated clothing, green and red streamers, Scotch tape. If you can find it, you bring the cassette A Motown Christmas to play in the rickety old tape machine.You gather these items, you get in your cars, bundled against the cold, and you go, early Saturday morning, to a place you are not likely to go very often—a building in the inner city where the walls are industrial beige, where the bedrooms are sometimes shared by several families, where homeless mothers, fathers and children eat in a windowless cafeteria.And, for a few hours, you alter reality.
For the last seven Decembers, I have been part of a volunteer group that visits The Salvation Army Booth Shelter in downtown Detroit. Together, we do something I didn’t always know was possible: make Christmas.Not celebrate Christmas. Celebrating Christmas—or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa—is mostly an internal thing, gathering your own loved ones, buying them presents, cooking your favorite meals.“Making” a holiday is something else. It is constructing joy in places and on faces that might not otherwise have it. It is an opportunity in America that cries out for participation—at nursing homes, shelters, hospitals. And it is easier than you think.
In our case, we formed a group of volunteers back in 1997 through a radio program I do on WJR-AM in Detroit. In our first year, we heard about the Booth Shelter, a facility that serves the homeless and needy, particularly women who had been abused or addicted. “Most of these folks won’t have a Christmas,” the then program director, Eileen Poole, told us. Poole had been with The Salvation Army for 30 years. She’d seen how helping people get on their feet was a day-by-day process. She assured us any holiday we could “make” would be welcome.So, that first Saturday, we stormed in like a work crew. We opened tables and set up chairs. We laid out arts and crafts and ran streamers around the pale concrete walls. We opened boxes of donuts, poured cups of juice, helped glue a beard on our Santa Claus.
And then we waited. The shelter residents were still upstairs, and with our meager decorations in place, we took stock. Most of us were white, suburban, middle-class people who thankfully had never experienced the need for a place like this. We looked at each other, feeling awkwardly privileged. It was a little too quiet.Then, suddenly, down they came. A few. Then a dozen. Then dozens more. Mothers holding infants or pushing strollers. Children breaking free and running to the play tables. Men and women gratefully passing pizza slices. A group of pre-teens turning up the music and breaking into a dance. In less than five minutes, the place went from quiet to chaos—a beautiful, welcoming chaos. It was like those words from “Jingle Bells,” the ones about “making spirits bright.”
Oh, sure, there were a few strained moments. Some volunteers weren’t sure what to say. Some of the shelter’s women were skeptical of these new, smiling faces. Some children, already hurt by the ugliness of the world, were shy around so many hugs and head rubs.But it breaks down. It always does. The Temptations sing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the kids’ joyful shrieking shatters any invisible walls. Soon there are line dances and finger painting and a magician holding court in the hallway, and mothers going through a makeshift “Christmas store” where they can help themselves to donated presents—clothing and toys and household items they desperately need.“I was amazed the first time I came downstairs and saw all those volunteers,” recalls Roszenna Shamily, 38, who, along with two of her children, was in the facility for several years, recovering from substance abuse.
“The way they took our kids and started playing with them. Just to have an hour of help and relief—you don’t know what that means.”“I was trying to start my life over,” adds Brenda Young, 44, who had been hooked on drugs and alcohol and also was living at the facility with her three children when our group came by one December. “That party was the bright spot for my year.”There was one December when one of the volunteers brought a microphone and speakers, and people took turns belting holiday karaoke. There was another December when a fire truck passed by the shelter, and we flagged it down. We asked the firemen if, in exactly 20 minutes, they could ride past again and blow the sirens with a special guest on board. They said OK.
Twenty minutes later, in this cold and desolate section of Detroit, we had a flock of families outside, and suddenly the children were screaming—because Santa Claus was stepping down from the hoses and ladders.“My kids still talk about that,” Roszenna says. “My little boy, A.J., was telling his younger sister, Arlena, that Santa Claus didn’t exist. But that day, Arlena sat on Santa’s lap.” She laughs. “I don’t have that issue anymore.” Today, Roszenna and Brenda both work in the Booth Shelter’s offices. Both women came through the substance-abuse program (“They got us on our feet,” Roszenna says) and now have their own homes. They will be at the party again this year. They’ll be helping to lead it.
Now, let’s be honest. The holidays bring out many “feel good” stories. It’s easy to cynically dismiss another.What makes this one worth telling is that it is not someone else’s story. It is your own, just waiting to happen. Even now, there are shelters, soup kitchens, orphanages or elderly care facilities that would welcome volunteers who might turn a dull hour into a holiday memory. You need not be Florence Nightingale. Our group has soccer moms, carpenters, businessmen, teachers. Our parties are plastic plates and construction paper and people dancing the Hokey Pokey. One December, I was standing there, watching this noisy celebration spill through the hallways, when I felt something small in my hand. It was a finger. I looked down to see a little girl smiling at me. She couldn’t have been more than 5. Her face was dusted with green and red sparkles. I closed my grip around her tiny digits. Her mother, a heavyset woman, said: “Tell him what I told you.”The little girl said, “Thank you.”
Which was my line, of course, and I would have said it if there wasn’t such a lump in my throat.I have always been partial to that Beatles lyric: “And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” As we head to the shelter for another year of Popsicle sticks and pizza slices, I know those words are true for holiday joy as well. What you take equals what you make. And you can make it. You don’t have to wait. I imagine, wherever you live, someone could use a little holiday making right now.