Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Envelope

I was listening to the news last night as the reporter talked about Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Super Saturday, the busiest shopping days of the year. Suddenly I just wished all that could be stripped away, leaving only the Christ child in a manger.

I came across a story about three years ago that changed the way my husband and I do our Christmas giving, and I'd like to share it. It's simply called "The Envelope."

"It's just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past 10 years or so.

"It all began because my husband, Mike, hated Christmas — oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it: overspending, the frantic running around at the last minute, the gifts given in desperation.

"Knowing he felt this way, I decided one year to bypass the usual shirts, sweaters, ties... I searched for something special just for Mike.

"Our son Kevin was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended; shortly before Christmas, there was a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without headgear.

"It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. We ended up walloping them. As each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn't acknowledge defeat.

"Mike shook his head sadly. 'I wish just one of them could have won,' he said. 'They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.' That's when the idea for his present came.

"That afternoon, I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. On Christmas Eve, I placed an envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas. Each Christmas, I followed the tradition — one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a hockey game, another year giving a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas.

"The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning, and our children would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents. As the children grew, the envelope never lost its allure.

"The story doesn't end there. We lost Mike due to cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was so wrapped up in grief that I barely got the tree up. But on Christmas Eve I placed an envelope on the tree, and in the morning it was joined by three more.

"Each of our children had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing around the tree with wide-eyed anticipation watching as their fathers take down the envelopes.

"Mike's spirit, like the Christmas spirit, will always be with us."

* * * * * * * * * *

I was moved by this story and started following its example in my gift giving for Dwight, and the next year he started doing the same for me. We can't afford to outfit a sports team, but we contribute in each other's honor to a mission that is dear to our hearts. Last year he gave to a juvenile prison ministry that I have volunteered with; I wonder what it will be this year.

The only thing I miss about Black Friday is hearing the Salvation Army bell ringers, and they're getting harder to find each year. "The Envelope" has truly made our Christmases memorable.