If you drive into the Village of Port Jefferson during holiday season you cannot help but be touched by its festive lights and beautiful holiday decorations. The Dickens Festival and a variety of holiday and Christmas concerts throughout the village truly help you to feel the holiday spirit. There is genuinely a spirit of hospitality during these days.
It continues to amaze me that despite our economic crisis and all the doom and gloom that is in the air, people continued to be so generous and thoughtful of others in need. This holiday season there is probably not a family reading this column that are not concerned about finances. Yet people continue to support so many worthy causes in our midst.
During this time of year, I hear so many wonderful stories about random acts of kindness and compassion. Among most touching is the story of a young college graduate who grew up in our community and in recent times has fallen on hard times. He has been unemployed for more than a year. He barely makes ends meet by doing odd jobs. He recently said that no job was beneath him, or hourly wage not adequate, especially when you need to eat.
Recently, this young man was talking about how frustrating these times are. The few jobs that were available when he went for an interview the employer felt he was overqualified and if he got something better, he would leave. So needless to say, he was passed over.
Growing up in our community, he knew that there were a network of soup kitchens sponsored by a number of local churches. He decided that he wanted to give something back to our community during the holiday season. He volunteered at Christ Church. As soon as he arrived, they put him to work. That night, he did all the pots and pans and cleaning in the kitchen. He was amazed at how many people of all ages came for a hot meal and a sense of community. He commented on how caring and compassionate the volunteers that served the meal were that night. He was also taken by the fact that so many of the volunteers had been volunteering for years.
As we continued our conversation about his volunteer experience, he reluctantly admitted that he was not a very generous person. However, working in the soup kitchen caused him to step back and really think about being more generous and more open to sharing his gifts and talents. He indicated that he would probably continue as long as he is able to honor a weekly commitment to that soup kitchen. He felt that he got more than he gave that night.
A group of college students who work in a variety of restaurants on the weekend and go to school together decided that they would give an evening of their tips to Christmas Magic, a program that gathers toys and gifts for children in need across Long Island. They picked Christmas Magic because they heard about its good work on their college campus.
A group of elementary school students from the Harbor Country Day School collected a huge basket of socks for the poor and the needy. What was impressive about the students, who ranged in age from early elementary school to eighth grade, was a genuine desire to make a difference. They were so proud of their hard work, and so happy that they could make a contribution that really mattered.
A speech pathologist working with a group of elementary school students had a dress-down day. They decided to give the money that was raised from dress-down day to a local charity that worked with young people. They were so proud that they could contribute all of the hundred and nine dollars that they raised.
Probably one of the most touching stories holiday season has to do with a group of teenage boys who volunteered to give up a Saturday morning to sing Christmas carols in a home for the aging. The Mormon Tabernacle choir they were not. However, watching 20 young men entertain a group of senior citizens between the ages of 70 and 99 was quite refreshing. On their own they were able to engage these seniors into singing with them. Some reached down and held hands, others pushed wheelchairs and had conversations with residents who hadn't had visitors in years.
The most moving encounter was a 17-year-old who was walking a senior with a walker to her room. He got to her door and wished her Merry Christmas. She pulled him down, hugged and kissed him and he did the same. I heard her say to her nurse's aide that it was the first time in thirty years that anyone kissed her and that it made her Christmas.
On Black Friday, thousands of our neighbors and friends left in the early hours of the morning to descend on the outlets and local malls to allegedly get the bargains of the season. How many of us during this time of year spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, for people we can stand!
During the holiday season, we run around in five million directions, rarely taking time to think and reflect on the reason for this season. No matter what your religious tradition or philosophical perspective, this time of year is a time for expressing our care and concern for one another. Unfortunately, too often we get lost in that material expression and lose sight of the real reason for the season. For Christians, it's about the birth of Jesus Christ and the Savior. For the Jewish Community, it's about the festival of lights. It's not about Christmas trees, bargains at the mall or sales at the outlets. It's about people and relationships. It's about reaching beyond oneself and thinking of another. It's about making an effort to heal fractured and estranged relationships.
It is about giving but not necessarily something material, but rather giving a part of yourself. Every holiday season, our community is so blessed, because so many people of every age and faith tradition step up and step out and touch people's hearts and lives. Oftentimes it's the beginning of new relationships and friendships.
My favorite Christmas story has to do with a 16-year-old who was homeless. His parents were killed in a car accident. The system attempted to place him but he ran away. For almost a year, he lived in abandoned cars and boxes along the railroad tracks and in boarded up houses. This particular year it was pretty cold out during the holiday season. Someone suggested that he see me, and that I might be able to help him. Thanksgiving weekend, he sought me out. He agreed to give Hope House a try.
He moved in on the Sunday after Thanksgiving that year. Every Christmas, I ask the young people who live in our community house what they would like for Christmas. They can identify three reasonable things. Reasonable is definitely the operative word. I asked Jack to do the same. He only gave me two things. The first was a request for a warm coat, the second was the promise that if he was good all year, he could live here next Christmas, and feel the sense of family that welcomed him this year.
Christmas came that year. Jack got his coat, which in turn he gave to an old man sleeping in boxes along the railroad tracks between Port Jefferson and Setauket. Christmas night, I found a note under my door, thanking me for the coat and for providing him with the most memorable Christmas in his life since his parents death. The sense of family connectedness, he said, was his greatest Christmas present.
As I read his note, he reminded me so pointedly of what this season is supposed to be about. I've never forgotten that Christmas. Jack taught all of us a lot about giving and reaching out and what really is important. He finished high school and went on to college, while living with us. Many years later, he still keeps in touch. He's a teacher trying to make a difference in the Midwest, but always mindful of the Christmas that changed his life. A year doesn't go by, that he does not write and say thank you!