By Nancy Hoag
Because my husband’s work frequently relocated us from one part of the country to another, we’d spent more than one Christmas alone, and this one would be no exception. We couldn’t afford to fly to be with family, and the hundreds of miles from our town to their’s meant we also wouldn’t drive. So, just as we had in years past, Scotty and I decided we would find people who might enjoy spending their Christmas in our home.
We began by inviting a middle-aged man from our square dancing class. Recently divorced and alone, he was also battling an alcohol addiction. Next, we met a couple with an infant and toddler; during the course of our conversation, we discovered they’d recently moved to the Southwest from Alaska, and they were more than a little homesick.
Then Scotty mentioned a colleague and his wife with five children who would be spending their holiday separated from extended family because they had also been transferred; retired neighbors with no children had nowhere to go; and a couple with two small boys had decided not to think about Christmas at all, they were that financially strapped and discouraged.
Meanwhile, I’d been introduced to a woman recently widowed. Over coffee she said she’d be eating her Christmas dinner in a Chinese café. Not until two days before the event did we complete our list and discover 30 of us would be celebrating together. Eleven of the 30 were children.
“Okay,” I said, “we’ll empty the back bedroom and set it up for the kids.” I would then call the mothers to say, “Bring all the new toys; we’ll have plenty of space.” And though he hadn’t been all that enthused in the beginning, even Scotty was seeing what fun this gathering would be.
With his help, I decorated our tree with Lifesavers®, animal crackers, candy canes, and lollipops in every color of Christmas. I invited each woman to bring a favorite dish. Within hours they had all called to say they would be sharing back-home traditions. Suddenly, this was shaping up to be even more than the Merry Christmas we had wanted.
Then our teenager flew through the front door after a week with friends to express how tired she was of people. Scotty and I had been hauling wood for the fireplace, decorating the doors, setting out luminarias, and wondering how to tell our daughter about the plans we had made—when Lisa dropped her coat and boots, spotted the plates and preparations, and hooted, “Mom! Who in the world is coming this time? Don’t tell me we’re having another SPCA Christmas!”
I wouldn’t have put it that way but, yes, we’d invited several new friends and a couple of strangers. “But no one should be alone and not celebrating,” I said. Christmas had often been difficult for me, I reminded her, so I understood how lonely the others would be.
Determined to ignore my daughter’s eye roll, I tried casually to introduce a biblical principle: “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).
Her back to me, Lisa offered one of her drama-and-trauma shrugs.
“Okay, then,” I said, “what about ‘Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling?’” (1 Peter 4:9).
“So maybe you could help me gather up chairs. And we’ll need two more tables.” I turned to smile at my daughter when I heard her bedroom door slam.
Putting It Together
OK, so she wasn’t really into what we were doing, but my spouse was offering to help with the necessary phone calls and had even suggested he round up some extra chairs and a table from a couple of neighbors. We would then drag picnic benches from our own backyard and dig out a card table.
Festive cloths, candies, candles, paper Christmas plates, and matching napkins would pull everything together. Meanwhile, I would pretend I hadn’t heard my daughter’s, “I can’t believe you did this!”
The following day, our guests began arriving early 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 of our guests knew no one in the house but us, but it didn’t take long for each to make a new friend; several even exchanged telephone numbers while one woman shared her recipes for Snickerdoodles and Baked Alaska.
Not only that, our daughter finally came out of hiding to entertain the youngest children and to assist with what eventually became an after-midnight cleanup—because the divorced alcoholic wanted to talk not only about his situation but to ask, “Where do you go to church?”
So it hadn’t been “the worst Christmas ever”—although I didn’t actually figure that part out until several years after my youngest married and invited us to spend Christmas in her home.
A Quiet Christmas
We had traveled across three states to get there. I was tired, but still eager to help set up what I knew would be a gorgeous table. I had so much to share with our daughter.
But in the middle of our peeling a sink filled with yams, I noticed Lisa was preparing her table not just for us, but for an additional nine. “We’re only six,” I said, as my daughter dropped down in front of her buffet to find her prettiest napkins and a box of festive candles. “So who else. . . ?” I’d begun when, over her shoulder Lisa called back, “I’ve invited a couple of friends.”
I’d hoped for a quiet family dinner, but we would be sharing it with her friends who would be strangers to me.
“I just hope they get along,” she added, deciding which dessert plates and forks to set out.
“You hope who gets along?” I resisted the impulse to roll my eyes. “If they’re all friends. . . ”
“The people who don’t know anyone but me,” Lisa said, tossing me her “Duh!” look.
“They don’t know . . . but they’re all coming for dinner and . . .?” Surely she wouldn’t; she prided herself on keeping her dinners elegant yet simple and for family only or intimate friends. “Lisa,” I said, turning toward her dining room door. “Who are these guests?”
“A neighbor down the street,” she tossed off without looking directly at me. “She moved out here after her divorce, and she’s really lonely.”
“And a couple with their first baby, because her mother doesn’t want to spend Christmas with them, and she doesn’t get along all that well with her dad, either.” My daughter paused to take a breath and to rearrange a lavish bouquet of something red.
“Oh, my!” How could grandparents not want to spend Christmas with their very first grandchild?
Scurrying around now to gather chairs, Lisa shrugged. “And a girl from the bank, and a couple with two little boys who just moved here from California, but he hasn’t yet found work. And I’ve asked a woman whose husband isn’t well, and it’s really hard for her.” My near breathless daughter grabbed a divided silver dish for the candies
and nuts. “So . . . .”
My Daughter “Got It”
“So,” I said, “we’re going to have . . . ?” I couldn’t say it. I grinned instead.
“Yes, Mom, an SPCA Christmas.” Lisa donned her pretty grin. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, nodding as I turned back toward the kitchen to count the glasses and cups and to keep my laughter to myself. She was never going to admit it, but this youngest child of mine understood the value of opening her home—even to near strangers. And now she had filled her arms with the baskets that would hold her dozens of cookies and bread.
“So maybe you would choose the music,” she said, “while I go start the coffee?”
“I will be glad to do that.” I turned to look directly at this offspring who’d always been a precious gift. “And, Honey?”
“Hmmm?” She had again donned her contagious smile.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” she sang, tossing her head.
“Yes, a very Merry Christmas,” I whispered. Merry because because I knew my daughter got it.
Nancy Hoag is a freelance writer in Three Forks, Montana.
Tips for an SPCA Christmas
1. Go all out. This may be a ragtag group, but it doesn’t need to be a ragtag celebration.
2. Think about the ages and special needs of guests (including food allergies) as you plan.
3. Give guests roles and responsibilities so they feel like family, not charity.
4. Get your kids involved in the planning and execution of the dinner. Kids are great at making others feel welcome.
5. Point out people’s common interests and experiences when you introduce them to each other.
6. Consider assigning seats around the dinner table to eliminate anxiety.
7. Try some games to get people laughing and talking. They don’t need to be specific get-to-know-you games.
8. If you’ve invited international students or recent immigrants, make sure you have the necessary language aids available.
9. Think of some questions to ask guests over dinner—both general questions and questions for specific guests.
10. Brainstorm ways to weave in the gospel story.