Montreal gave me my best and worst Christmas memories ever. I was there from 2002 to 2004 on a mission.
The particular Christmas of which I speak was in 2003. We spent most of our time as missionaries on a busy street called Decarie. That road is famous for a little place called Decarie Hot Dog—best poutine in the world! Poutine, as you may be able to tell from the image, is a concoction of French fries, cheese curds, and a delicious gravy called poutine sauce. Just thinking about it makes my left arm hurt.
But I digress.
I mention Decarie because that’s where we had our Christmas party with four Chinese families and our good Romanian church member friend Mihai Mihut, who hosted.
My mom gave us the idea for the party. She shipped two very large boxes of Christmas decorations, gifts, memory games, and other fun stuff and suggested we throw a party for our investigators.
That’s exactly what we did.
We invited lots of people. I think four couples ended up coming; two of the couples brought children. We played the Christmas memory games and gave gift prizes for the winners. We played a game where teams (couples or families) built a huge tower out of straws and tape. The team that won reached the ceiling. I think he studied engineering.
Everything worked out perfectly. Everyone won at least one of the games, so there was equality without pity. You know what I mean, Oh, you didn’t win? Well, here’s your consolation pity prize.
Even the gifts we gave were to the right people. Among them were some very fancy (expensive) raisins that had been dried and left on the vine in the package. We also had fancy chocolates and a few other comparable gifts. We wrapped them all, so I just gave everyone something at random. After opening the raisins the couple seemed extremely happy and even a bit shocked. “I can’t believe it” the wife said. “He loves raisins! Really!” The husband agreed and seemed genuinely thrilled. The other couples seemed just as happy, “We actually don’t like raisins,” another couple said. “We’re very glad we got the chocolate.”
Obviously, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But these people meant it 100%. It’s a little thing (giving out the right gifts randomly) but it meant a lot to me.
After the games and gift prizes were allotted, we shared a few thoughts on Christ. We believe we watched a short clip about the nativity and bore our testimonies of Christ. I don’t remember all the details, but the Spirit was in the room, and one of our investigators asked if he could speak. He was beaming with joy and bursting with gratitude. I can only compare him to Ammon. Everyone was smiling.
Then we brought out the grand finale. My missionary companion and I found a bunch of picture frames with ugly holographic art in them at the dollar store. We had to surgically remove the art, and then replace it with copies of the 12 Apostles’ The Living Christ in Chinese. They looked absolutely beautiful. And we had four of them (just enough for the families at the party). As happy as they were to receive the raisins and the chocolates, this gift (I felt) really touched their spirits. It was the best Christmas moment I have ever experienced.
But I mentioned bad Christmas memories. One part of the party still haunts me, even though seven years have elapsed since it happened.
As I said, we invited a lot of people to the party. Not just the Chinese families. Earlier in the week we had invited a man and his family who were from the Caribbean Islands. After inviting him, this man had asked if our church could help his family. I think I referred him to our branch president. I’m not sure exactly. But he was invited to the party.
I don’t remember at what point it happened, but he showed up and I was happy that he came. We were far enough away from the party that no one could hear us talking. He said that he had come to ask for help from the people at the party. He was going to ask for money. I wouldn’t let him. When he started to make his announcement I cut him off. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. It didn’t seem appropriate that he had come to ask for money at our Christmas party. But then again, I did not feel good about stopping him.
And it still haunts me. It really does. Every time I hear stories about the giving, generous spirit of Christmas, I think about this Christmas party. “No. I won’t let you ask our guests for help.” He seemed very humble about coming to ask for help. He held his cap in his hands and shifted it around a bit nervously. He left, looking dejected.
What if I had let him ask? What’s the worst that could have happened? I was worried they would think that I had planned it. That maybe we were in cahoots in a scheme to get money out of them. Maybe they wouldn’t want to be taught anymore because I allowed an awkward situation to occur at a pleasant Christmas party. I don’t know. I maybe it would lead to something awful.
But what if I really had let him ask? Who knows what his story was. Maybe the man would have said, “This Christmas season has been hard. My mother is dying [I think she actually was]. I don’t have a job or enough money to do anything for our family. Would you help us?”
Maybe there would have been silence. The man would pull at his hat, shifting it in his hands. Then, maybe Mihai would have been the first to speak, “I don’t have a lot, but let me see. I have twenty dollars here.”
“Thank you so much,” the man would have said.
Then Michael (the one I compared to Ammon) maybe he would look in his wallet. “Here, I also have twenty dollars.”
Lyn was generous. She really was. I bet she would whisper to her husband and then look into her purse. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we can give you ten dollars.”
“Oh thank you,” the man would have said.
Maybe one of the couples would say, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any money.” Maybe the other family would give him five dollars. Then we would look through our wallets. “We don’t keep a lot of cash, but here’s five dollars from each of us.”
Perhaps the man would have started to cry. Perhaps we would have cried with him.
“Why don’t you stay a while,” Mihai would say. We’re just about to have some hot chocolate and dessert.”
“Oh thank you. But I should be going. Thank you so much.” And he would have gone home feeling hope and acceptance.
Then again, perhaps it would have been awkward. Maybe no one would have offered to help. I wonder about it frequently this time of year. And I’ll never know what would have happened. I’ll never know (from that experience) just how strong the Christmas Spirit of giving can be. This time of year, I’ll always wonder, What if?
And it will always haunt me.