I have SO MANY wonderful Christmas memories, it's hard to pick just one. But this has to be at the top of my favorites...
As a little girl back in the 1960's and 70's, every year, for as far back as I can remember, our church sponsored Christmas parties at the county State Hospital. Remember State Hospitals?? They don't exist any more, but back in the day every county had one. The State Hospital was a permanent residence for many people with mental disorders, a group of "homes" on a campus, each building housing 20 people or so. I don't know how many different buildings of residents there were, but each year our church would "adopt" one of the homes and put on a Christmas party for its residents.
And Dad played Santa.
Dad was a big, strong, gruff Marine...but hidden inside that intimidating, tough-guy exterior was the softest heart! He didn't often show it...but babies, little children, animals, and those residents at the State Hospital sure brought it out.
The residents scared me. Seeing a grown man staggering around and drooling all over himself or an adult woman wearing a protective helmet sitting in a corner banging her head on the wall were frightening sights to a little girl who'd lived a very sheltered life. Thinking about it now, I have to hand it to my parents for taking me along and "letting" me experience the sadder side of humanity instead of sheltering me from the tragedies that are also part of life on this earth. But it was scary as the residents would try to touch my blond curls and grab my little hand and smile their drooly grins at me, reaching out in gestures of friendliness that made me recoil and cling even tighter to Mama's hand.
Our church group would bring cookies and punch, a real challenge for many of the residents to enjoy. And then Santa would enter the room, with a bag full of wrapped gifts on his back!
So much excitement when Dad "ho-ho-hoed"...the residents were DELIGHTED and gleefully giggling! They rushed around him, wanting to touch his flannel suit and fake beard. The caretakers would try to hold them back, make them sit down and "behave" themselves, but there was no stopping their enthusiasm. Dad would grab a gift and read out the name...most often, the resident wouldn't recognize his/her own name but if they did, they could not contain their excitement. Total, unabashed pure JOY!!! And they'd unwrap a pair of socks or underwear or a gown or sometimes even a doll or a toy truck...whatever the gift inside, they were tickled pink with it, exclaiming over it with huge grins on their faces.
I had no idea at the time, but I was experiencing true Christmas JOY...both in the residents and in my Dad.
He was so gentle and loving with them, sitting them on his lap, teasing and playing with them like they were toddlers instead of grown-ups. It's hard to tell who was enjoying it most! I stood back in awe and saw my big, tough Daddy in a whole new light. And loved him even more.
I vividly remember one time, maybe the first time I went, Santa/Dad picked me up as we were leaving and he was waving good-byes and hollering "Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!" to the residents. They looked at him with the shiniest, happiest faces...and I looked at my daddy and watched, though he was smiling, the tears trickle down his own cheeks.
It's a Christmas treasure I hold in my heart and fondly pull out every year when I display this photo from 1969 of me and my siblings with Daddy. (That's me on the far right, looking very cool at 12 years old with my awesome BLUE glasses!)
I miss you, Daddy!
But thank you for teaching me what serving "the least of these" looks like!
And for those precious memories of your special way of...
...spreading Christmas joy!