Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Reinventing Christmas

What do you think your kids would say if you asked them to feed hungry people in lieu of receiving Christmas gifts?  My kids said “yes.”

This story began nearly a year ago when, after lots of holiday celebrations, our home was – once again – filled with far more than our children needed or even appreciated.  Thanks to the wisdom of one of my dearest friends, we have always followed the tradition of having a meaningful but minimal Christmas as an immediate family.  Each of our four kiddos receives a gift from Santa, a stocking full of little treats and three gifts from the Three Wise Men.  That’s it.  It is not the floor-covered, gifts-stacked crazy indulgence that Jay and I experienced as children, but it is more than enough, especially when you consider all of the additional gifts that they receive from grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc…
And yet, even with our always downsized holiday, Jay and I stood in our kitchen last Christmas night feeling overwhelmed with the amount of “stuff” that our family had accumulated in less than 24 hours’ time.  Our years of experience told us that at least a quarter of the gifts would never be worn or never be opened and that half of it would hardly be touched at all.  What normally might feel like a wave of relief at having survived yet another Christmas instead felt empty and disheartening.
We talked about how many hours (and thousands of dollars) we had spent to make the day special for our kids and the dozens of people on our Christmas list, and we realized that the scales tilted quite heavily toward resentment rather than joy.  Perhaps it was because that time and money could now never be spent on things that really mattered.  The season was so rushed and so focused on gift giving that all of our family rituals suffered.  Not to worry, though; we made time for the school events and the church events and the neighborhood events and the work events and the friend events and the family events.  But, to do that, the advent calendar was postponed for yet another year, we had to “squeeze in” time to trim our own tree, we didn’t bake and decorate a single Christmas cookie and we never once sat around the TV to watch my favorite Christmas classic.  (Heat Miser, if you must know.)  Oh…. and, on Christmas Eve, I was reminded by the kids that I had forgotten to make a birthday cake for baby Jesus, a tradition that we had started 12 years prior, when Juliana was a toddler.  Imagine how that made me feel as I pulled out the mixer and started baking because, during that entire month of preparations, God chose the voice of a child at literally the 11th hour to remind me to get my head back into the game.

I could outline the tiles on the kitchen floor where Jay and I stood last Christmas night as we talked about our day and considered the possibilities of reinventing Christmas.  It was one of those conversations where you feel like your partner totally gets you and you accidentally fall even deeper in love.  I said something like, “We should go to Guatemala for Christmas next year on a family mission trip,” and he said something like, “That actually sounds like a great idea.”  I was surprised by his response but, more so, I was entirely and overwhelmingly grateful for it.  The spirit of Christmas, which had evaded me from Thanksgiving turkey dinner through Jesus cake dessert, entered me with the kind of brain freeze jolt that you experience when quickly drinking an ice cold chocolate shake on a hot summer day.  Invigoration and then relief.  Christmas would be different next year.
I had just returned from my fourth trip to Guatemala last October, and visions of hungry families living in mud brick houses consumed me.  Those who have done outreach work in economically oppressed countries would surely agree that, upon your return to this land of plenty, possessions suddenly matter less.  Much less.  But, without experiencing it yet for themselves, how could I convince my children to give up Christmas as they’ve always known it and ask Santa to provide food for the poor rather than a cell phone or an iTouch?  Turns out that it wasn’t hard at all.
For nearly six years, our family has offered support to an amazing non-profit organization in Guatemala called Mayan Families.  In a very deliberate effort to stay connected to our son Will’s Birthcountry, we began sponsoring a student named Daniel Pablo and, soon after, partnered with other local adoptive families to send large shipments of humanitarian aid items to Mayan Families for direct distribution to the rurally poor indigenous Mayan population that they serve.  Everything from gently used shoes to clothing to linens to medical supplies to vitamins to technology and much, much more has been packed into huge boxes a couple of times each year, and the best thing about it is that we pack those boxes together.  On a given Saturday in May and October, dozens of people with ties to Mayan Families join us for a purposeful “Packing Party” that has resulted in literally tons of donations being shipped to Guatemala and figuratively tons of love being generated by our common mission.  And so, our four children have truly grown up assuming that anything that they no longer need or use should be sent to Guatemala or shared with someone, somewhere, in need.
Within days of that kitchen conversation, Jay and I started mentioning the possibility of a Guatemala Christmas to the kids.  And, other than Kendra’s unreasonable fear of volcanoes, it was met with great enthusiasm.  Over the next five months, we had a handful of spontaneous family chats where we painted the picture of a Christmas without our extended family, without gifts and without the comforts of home.  All of their questions and answers and ideas convinced us that they were ready for this kind of experience.  We booked our flights in May and started setting goals for McFadyen Christmas, 2012.
Our two week journey will have both a mission component and a culture piece.  We will spend our first week working with Mayan Families, hosting a Christmas party in the agricultural village of El Barranco, presenting gifts to the children, assembling and distributing tamale food baskets, and visiting with our sponsored student.  Week two (Christmas week) will be a time of discovery as we climb ancient Mayan pyramids and enjoy the first time ever that we have spent two dedicated weeks together as a family of six.  If you ask me, that’s the best Christmas gift ever.
The number 500 has been key to achieving our three mission trip goals.  We were hopeful to send 500 toys in September’s Santa Shipment to Mayan Families, and we sent 700+.  We were prayerful to receive the donation of a piece of playground equipment (valued at $500) from CedarWorks of Maine, and CEO Barrett Brown and his team came through too.  And, we were absolutely positively determined to provide a Christmas meal to 500 people in lieu of receiving gifts ourselves.  Thanks to our incredibly generous network of family and friends, we will likely feed 1000 people on December 24th.
In July, with the blessing of the kids, we sent a message to all those with whom we exchange gifts, and we asked them to take us off of their Christmas lists this year.  Instead, we suggested that they make a donation to their favorite charity in our name or, if they felt so moved, we asked that they consider contributing toward the purchase of a $40 Tamale Basket that would feed 10 people on Christmas Eve.  You see, in rural Guatemala, families have no money for gifts and garland, trees and treasures.  If they are lucky to have saved extra quetzales, they will likely go to the market to buy the ingredients to make tamales and, at midnight, as children search for Santa in the skies above, they will feast for that one night and celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Sadly, the majority of families cannot afford this simple tradition.
This year will be different… for them and for us.  One thousand people will not be turned away at the gates of Mayan Families this year, because there are no more baskets to share.  One thousand people will have protein in their diet, will sip sweet drinking chocolate, and will feel a sense of fullness that comes but once a year.  One thousand people will feel the love of strangers and the new hope that is a true sign of Christ’s birth.  For one thousand people, a Christmas wish will be fulfilled.  And, for six McFadyens, Christmas will never, ever, be the same.

Feliz Navidad a Todos!




  1. Beth,
    You brought tears to my eyes. That's a beautiful post from a beautiful heart. May this be the best Christmas ever for you and your family.
    Molly O'

  2. That is beautiful... thank you for sharing your joy on your blog. You are an inspiration.

  3. Hi Beth,
    Thank you for this post and the heart you expressed. It's always been a dream of mine to truly give at Christnas to those in need. Eventually, when my husband and I have children, that is one of our biggest goals is to somehow pass that passion on to them. Now I see there is no limits to what God wants to do and how different our Christmases could look. Blessings!