Thank You From A Christmas Charity Kid –
By Elizabeth Glass Turner –
Have you ever bought and donated Christmas presents for kids through an Angel Tree project or local congregational initiative?
If so, let me say Thank You for all the kids opening Lego sets, Frozen books, baby dolls, new Minecraft pajamas, Doc McStuffins blankets, Hot Wheels haulers, brand-new sneakers, and unicorn mittens on Christmas morning.
If you’ve only experienced the grace of giving at Christmas, but you’ve never had to accept the grace of receiving basic needs from anonymous donors, maybe you’ve wondered whether any of it makes a difference. It’s easy to grow cynical or weary; to feel overwhelmed by the scope of need; to feel stung by a child’s defensive guardian.
But kids don’t choose whether their family should pay the utility bill or the grocery bill; kids aren’t responsible for the economy; kids don’t get a say on their parent’s choices.
I was that kid.
So for all The Kids, Thank You. We felt your kindness, your generosity, your community.
Do Christmas Toy Drives Promote Materialism? Most of us in the U.S. know someone who grew up in the Great Depression. Most of them knew hunger and lack; some were malnourished.
My Grandpa hated rice. As a child in the 1930s, his large family depended on rice for meals and he’d long since had his fill. One gentleman I know who grew up in the Depression told me of foraging for edible greens in yards and ditches; decades later, he still recalled his intense dislike of the taste and unpleasant side effects.
If you’ve always had “enough” or more than “enough,” part of your household discipleship and stewardship practices will involve simplicity and self-denial. That’s right, good, and appropriate. It’s the way of Jesus.
At the same time, every Christmas, there are those suggesting ways to fight materialism: give your kids only two presents each, give an experience rather than goods, give only books this year. Those can be great practices that enhance intentionality about values, consumption, expenditures, and community – for those with “enough.”
But imagine preaching a sermon on materialism in the 1930’s to the kid foraging for greens so the family had something to eat. It assumes a lot to address materialism to a broad audience. I didn’t grow up in the Depression, but I know the strangeness of being a kid whose basic needs are a stretch for the household budget and hearing sermons that assume everyone in a congregation is middle or upper-middle class. (Even in a reflection like this, I write primarily to North American readers accustomed to established infrastructure, some safety nets, and community programs like Angel Trees; at the same time, some of our sisters and brothers leading churches in other parts of the world are praying for urgent provision without established infrastructure, safety nets, or multiple community programs.)
In our cultural context and setting, my family had very little (I didn’t visit a dentist until I was nearly twelve). One wintry Christmas an older couple from church stopped by with toys for me and my little brother – a gorgeous doll and heavy green toy tractors. That same kind woman later gave me free piano lessons; she invited us over for roast beef; she knew I loved to read and brought me books; she brought us souvenir toys from her trip to Greece, igniting my imagination about faraway places. We didn’t have many toys, or a budget for music lessons, or grocery money for pricy protein, or more than one household vehicle for unplanned trips to the library.
So when you choose some numbered paper angels labeled things like Boys’ winter boots, size 6 or Girl age 4: Sesame Street toys, what are snapshots of life beyond the paper angel?
Sometimes Christmas clothes were the only brand-new clothes we owned in a long line of ill-fitting hand-me-down’s. (There were times I entered “take your shoes off” households and felt extremely self-conscious of the holes in my socks, covering one foot with the other.)
Sometimes we had few toys that were new or reflected our interests. (If a toy drive allows, consider including extra batteries; a parent working three jobs may not have money or time to add batteries to the shopping list.)
Sometimes we didn’t have construction paper or craft supplies or a shelf stacked with board games. (Have you ever bought a puzzle from a garage sale only to get home and discover pieces are missing?)
It’s not materialism to hope for shoes that don’t pinch your growing feet; it’s not greed to eat when your growing body’s stomach rumbles.
One of the beautiful, uncomfortable dynamics in the Book of Acts lies at the heart of Pentecost, at the birth of the church: believers from all classes and backgrounds jumbled together. All of them proclaimed faith in Jesus Christ; all equally received the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit; all needed the spiritual gifts of others to function as the body. When the church broadly speaking is healthy today, we see a similar “kingdom” jumble of incomes and backgrounds.
So what might be materialistic excess for one household is a means of grace for another. If you have enough, give more, and be thankful; if you lack, receive, and be thankful. In both, the name of Jesus Christ will be glorified.
The Preserving Grace of Insulation against Lack, Trauma. Whether or not a child ever knows a gift came from a person of faith, that gift is a stabilizing, preserving grace.
Bringing good things to the children of a community is a work of mercy. For Christians at Christmas, we can remember how the Roman Emperor Julian described early Christians in the 300’s. Julian complained Christians were making pagans look bad, because Christians were caring not only for their own poor people but pagan poor people as well.
Sometimes kids never know someone donated the presents under their tree. That’s fine; it doesn’t matter. Their feet have new winter boots, their minds have new books even if a broken-down vehicle won’t get them to the library every week. This is the grace that preserves. This grace is for a parent or guardians who love deeply but have little. Honoring the dignity of others is a gift.
Sometimes kids know people in the community donated presents, but they don’t know who gave them. That’s fine; it doesn’t matter. Their feet have boots, their minds have books. This grace preserves. In the face of uncertainty, grace strengthens trust and goodwill: the community beyond the front door shows children they’re valued by people they’ve never met.
Sometimes kids are part of a congregation and see their own wish list items on a bulletin board. And their feet have boots, their minds have books to read. This grace preserves – and it preserves in multiple directions and dimensions, one part of the long story of good news Mary prophesied: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy…” (Luke 1:46-48a; 52-54).
Jesus’ birth is good news for poor kids. Jesus was raised by people who made the low-income bracket offering at the temple. Jesus grew up knowing the adverse childhood experience of suddenly needing to leave home to flee political violence, as Joseph and Mary took the toddler Jesus away from familiar surroundings and fled as refugees to Egypt.
Later, the Son of God sat on a hill looking at people whose stomachs rumbled and made sure everyone – senior citizens, teenagers with roaring metabolisms, pregnant mothers, toddlers like he’d been once – everyone ate their fill. When everyone had their fill, Jesus made sure there were leftovers to tide them over on the way home.
At church and at home, I learned that the Word became flesh, born to a low-income household. If you’ve ever been self-conscious about the loud muffler on the family car, if you’ve ever gotten smirks at your budget haircut, there’s something profoundly moving about knowing God chose to grow up with poor people. It wasn’t the nanny of the well-to-do who taught Jesus to walk. Raised in a low-income household, Jesus made himself at home with the kids who look forward to church potlucks because they can eat as much as they want.
One year, I saw my Christmas wish items pinned to a church bulletin board; I felt relief when those papers were gone from the cork surface; someone had “adopted” those pieces of paper – my pieces of paper.
When my mother was gravely ill and nearly died, she faced a long recovery. A procession of casseroles and covered dishes appeared at our front door. The foil-covered spaghetti sent a quiet message to my terrified mind: “it’s okay, whatever happens, we’ve got you.”
Part of what I learned from filled wish lists and casseroles was that the good news I heard about in church was good news here and now in tangible ways I could taste, physical ways I could unwrap: “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
This was powerful, preserving grace that mattered, because the woman who brought the toys one year always treated my family with dignity and respect.
But not everyone did. It was years before I told my mother what a former neighbor kid said one day while playing outside. I’d been in their house once and knew the girl had some cool toys.
“Can we go inside and play?”
“No. Last time my Mom said, ‘they’re poor and they’re dirty, don’t bring her inside again.’”
Maybe my shoes had been muddy, I don’t know; I was a young child. I felt like I’d been smacked. I knew I was a good student; I knew I was polite. I stopped playing with the girl.
But kids can be remarkably perceptive to adults’ attitudes, even without other kids quoting their parents (… and they do). Kids can have a keen radar for adults who have opinions about their household, about their parent or guardians, about their circumstances. And kids can’t eat your opinions about the housing market or play with your opinions about their families – whoever they are, whatever their background.
Thankfully, when I heard the neighbor’s stinging comment, I’d already been wrapped up and insulated in layers of preserving grace that had been at work quietly whispering that the good news of Jesus was for poor kids like me – and it was here and now, tastable and unwrappable.
A doll or a book may not seem like much. But play is essential for childhood well-being – especially in households with trauma. Literacy is essential for future growth, development, and dreams.
Holiday food drives and toy drives make a difference (though they aren’t wide-reaching solutions). If a nation has so much edible food that a significant percentage of what’s produced is destroyed, wasted, or lost at the farm or distribution level annually, does that nation not have enough food to send home with every school kid each weekend, enough to deliver weekly to every senior citizen living on $1,100 a month? If a nation can afford to neglect pursuing proportionate tax revenue from residents so wealthy their assets defy average citizen comprehension, can that nation not afford pro-family policies like a child tax credit? (See John Wesley’s Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions.)
But while we work out the avenues and means of neighborly flourishing, be assured your Christmas generosity makes a difference.
When you help a child experience preserving grace, you help stabilize their world in the midst of instability that’s beyond their control (and sometimes beyond their parents’ control). That preserving grace helps insulate children from unkindness, bullying, and adversity. The early Wesleyan Methodists were known for valuing low-income kids, teaching them to read and fighting against child labor. The heart of Christ beams with joy when we take his words seriously: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
So for all the kids on the other side of the paper angels, this Christmas I want to say Thank You. Don’t give up or grow weary in doing good; there will be people in heaven because of generous, preserving grace that delivered hope in the shape of canned cranberry sauce, unicorn blankets, and winter boots that fit.
Elizabeth Glass Turner is a frequent and treasured contributor to Good News. She is a freelance writer and editor. Elizabeth has a degree in Theological Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary. Art: Photo by Jonathan Borba via Pexels.com.