by NANCY HOAG
My husband’s work had frequently relocated us from one state to another, which meant we’d spent many holidays alone, and this one would be no exception. We couldn’t afford the two round-trip flights to be with family, and the hundreds of miles between us meant we wouldn’t be driving. So, just as we had in years past, Scotty and I decided to ask around about other couples, families and even singles who might enjoy Christmas in our home.
We began by inviting a man we’d met in our square dancing class. Recently divorced, he not only lived alone but battled alcohol addiction. Next, we invited a couple with an infant and toddler who recently relocated to the Southwest from Alaska, and within minutes they were telling us they had been, for some time, seriously homesick. Then Scotty mentioned a colleague, his wife, and five children would be spending Christmas separated from extended family; retired neighbors would be alone; and a financially-strapped and discouraged couple with two small boys. Meanwhile, I’d been introduced to a widow who was planning to eat her dinner alone in a Chinese cafe—so two days before Christmas; we discovered 30 of us would be celebrating together. Eleven of those thirty would be children.
“We’ll empty the back bedroom and set it up for the kids,” I said. “Then I’ll invite the mothers to bring the new toys, because in that one room with everything removed, we’ll have plenty of space.” Meanwhile, with my husband’s help, I decorated our tree with Lifesavers®, animal crackers and lollipops in every color of Christmas. I also invited each guest to bring a favorite dish and within a matter of hours they’d all called to say they’d be sharing their “back home” traditions. This was shaping up to be even more than the Very Merry Christmas we’d anticipated.
That is, until our teenager flew through the door shrieking, “I’m so sick of people!” And then—before we could tell Lisa about our wonderful plans—she dropped her coat, spotted the platters and hooted, “Don’t tell me we’re having another ‘SPCA’ Christmas!”
I wouldn’t have put it that way but yes, we’d invited several friends and a couple of strangers. “But no one should be alone,” I said, ignoring my daughter’s eye roll. “And remember ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it’—Hebrews 13:2?”
Lisa offered her shrug.
“Okay,” I said, “what about ‘Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling’?”
“So maybe you could gather chairs, and we’ll need two small tables.” I’d turned to smile for my daughter when I heard her bedroom door slam.
Okay, so she wasn’t into it yet, and she’d no doubt had a bad day at work, so we would talk about all of that later. Meanwhile, though, Scotty was making phone calls and offering to drag the picnic benches from our backyard, and then he’d dig out a card table from under the house. Festive cloths, candles, paper plates and matching napkins would pull everything together—and I would pretend I hadn’t heard Lisa’s, “I do not believe this!”
Two days before Christmas, we discovered 30 of us would be celebrating together. Eleven of those thirty would be children.
The following day, our guests arrived with their children, new toys, old toys and favorite foods. Within minutes, the cleared bedroom became the setting for Lego® towers, dolls, buggies and books. Most knew no one but us, but it didn’t take long for each one to make a friend; several even exchanged telephone numbers; one woman shared her recipe for Baked Alaska; Lisa eventually volunteered to entertain the youngest children and, later, to assist with the after-midnight cleanup. And one who struggled with alcoholism asked Scotty, “Where do you go to church?” So it hadn’t been “the worst Christmas ever”—although I didn’t figure that out until after my youngest married and invited us for Christmas in her home.
We’d traveled cross-country, so I felt bone-weary. Nevertheless, I wanted to help set what would be a gorgeous table, and I had so much to share with my daughter. Except, as we peeled yams, I noticed Lisa was preparing not just for us but also for an additional nine. “We’re only six,” I said, as Lisa began to fold her prettiest napkins. “So who else—?” I’d begun when Lisa called back, “I’ve invited a couple of friends.”
I’d hoped for a family dinner, but we’d be sharing it with our daughter’s friends?
“I just hope they get along,” she added, sorting plates and forks.
“You hope who gets along? If they’re friends—”
“The people who don’t know anyone but me,” Lisa said, turning to toss her “Duh!” look.
“But they’re all coming and … ?” She prided herself on keeping her dinners elegant, simple, for family or colleagues only. “Lisa,” I said, “these guests will be—?”
“A neighbor,” she said without looking at me. “Moved out here after her divorce, she’s really lonely.”
“A couple with their first baby. Her mother refuses to spend Christmas with them, and she doesn’t get along all that well with her dad.” My daughter paused to rearrange a bouquet of something red.
“Oh, my … ” How could grandparents not want to spend Christmas with their first grandchild?
Lisa shrugged. “Plus a teller from the bank, a couple with two boys … just moved here from California, but they haven’t found work, and a woman whose husband isn’t well, and it’s really hard … ” My breathless daughter grabbed a silver dish for nuts and candies. “So—”
“So,” I said, “we’ll be having … ?” I couldn’t say it. I began to smile instead.
“Yes, Mom, an SPCA Christmas.” Lisa returned the grin. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, counting glasses and keeping my laughter inside. She was never going to admit it, but my youngest—her arms filled with baskets that would hold her dozens of cookies and bread—did understand about sharing our homes.
“So maybe you would choose the music?” she asked.
“I’d like that,” I said, turning to look at this “child” who’d been a gift from birth. “And, Honey?”
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” Lisa sang, donning her contagious smile.
“A very merry,” I whispered … because my daughter got it.
NANCY HOAG is a freelance writer from Montana.