A young mother trudges through the December cold, with her two small children in tow. She is a desperate woman on this evening of the 24th day of the month. Tomorrow is Christmas, and she has nothing to put under the tree for her young ones, save the paltry gifts from the Angel Tree. “Paltry they may be these gifts, but that is all there will be for Christmas”, she reflects bitterly as the trio walks on.
She holds a plate of fresh baked goods. They help keep her ungloved hands warm against the biting wind. Her children have the benefit of thick coats and hats and gloves, but she is clad only in a thin jacket, jeans and sneakers. No boots on her feet, no hat on her head. She hopes she will not develop a headache from the cold before the night’s errands are run.
That young mother was me, years ago. My family was so desperately poor we were forced to live off welfare benefits. The shame of cashing in food stamps, the unformed hatred for those that had money and could shop at leisure for their children, affording anything their tykes wanted… I’ve eaten from that tree. The fruit is bitter and the taste is strong and long lasting. The only way to counter it is to fill your mouth, your heart and your life with sweetness.
The government endowed my family of three with a ridiculously large amount of funds to buy food with. The monthly welfare check was not nearly enough money to afford clothing and other of life’s necessities, let alone Christmas gifts, but we always had food. I will never complain of that, and I am thankful that my children did not go to bed hungry on Christmas Eve, or any other day. But how do foodstamps help adorn a barren Christmas tree?
The only logical thing to do was to take the kids’ minds off what they couldn’t and wouldn’t have. The only way to do that was to highlight the plight of others who do not even have it as good as we do. My kids and I gathered in the kitchen on Christmas Eve and started baking. Chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, peanut butter cookies… we spent the entire afternoon baking, singing songs and telling stories together. The kids snuck their fair share of fresh baked goods and I munched a few, too.
At nightfall we donned our coats and delivered plates full of cookies to the police station, the fire department and the hospital emergency room. We thanked these emergency services personnel for their yearlong service and for working on Christmas Eve, away from their family and keeping us safe.
My friends, you should have seen the dumbfounded looks we got! So unexpected was our appearance on the various doorsteps, so unusual was our message and so heartfelt and sincerely were our efforts received that the kids were just thrilled! They fought to see who would give away the next plate of treats and they argued about which song should be sung at the next destination. I daresay they did not feel the cold at all that night and, come time for bed the glow on their little faces, born of the joy of giving, carried them into dreamland without so much as a longing, wishful look at the barren Christmas tree.
Thus a tradition was born, later dubbed the Cookie Caravan. My daughter gets the credit for this innovative name, even though at first it was mainly my son’s friends who joined us.
You see, so popular was this tradition, so anticipated the joy, that the next year, the kids told all of their friends that that is what we do on Christmas Eve. Their friends thought that was such a cool idea they wanted to participate. The Cookie Caravan grew from one lone, desperate woman with two children into a gleeful event with several parents and their children joining us in the baking, the singing, the giving.
When Darrell and Jennifer grew away from home, they did not forget the best part of Christmas: the Cookie Caravan. Now even more people are on board with it. At last count the Caravan comprised of no less than seven cars full of people! My kids and their families, their friends and their families, their parents and once, even a set of grandparents.
When Jennifer married and moved to California she started a contingent of the Cookie Caravan, West Coast Division. Meanwhile, Darrell and I continued in the DFW area.
What will happen to the Caravan, now that I’m in China?
It continues, of course. Darrell and Jennifer will host the baking and lead the giving. The tradition started because of them; it is only right that they continue it. And me?
I am a teacher. Years ago I taught my children the joy and the importance of giving. Now, in this country that only sees Christmas as a commercial opportunity I mean to bring the message of giving to my students. We will have a Christmas party, but in the midst of that party we will leave and deliver cookies to the campus police, to the dorm monitors, to the street vendors who prepare our food and to the bus drivers who take us where we need to go. I can’t wait to see the looks on the kids’ faces when they behold the shock and awe of those we bestow our gifts on.
“Mommy, I want to be a fireman when I grow up!”
“Why is that, Sweetheart?”
“Because they are so nice and they help people.”
“That’s a wonderful reason to be a fireman! Mama loves you… Goodnight, sweet dreams!”
“I love you too, Mommy!”
What a coincidence: it just so happens one of the gifts from the Angel Tree was a fireman’s hat.