By Janis Fontaine
We asked some of our friends in the religious community to tell us about their most memorable Christmas or Hanukkah gifts. Here are their touching, thoughtful reflections.
A grateful recipient
The Christmas season brings with it the spirit of reflection and joyful anticipation for the year to come. For me, the season is a reminder of the art of being a grateful receiver.
In 2020, in the middle of COVID, my family got the news that my dad had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. One of the silver linings of COVID and the normalization of virtual learning was I had opportunities to fly back and forth to my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, to spend time with my family.
During one of my visits, my dad and I were going through his closet, cleaning, sorting things, and mostly just talking. Out of one of his drawers, he pulled out a pair of thick, wool, dog print tube socks. “You need these, Genevieve. You love dogs!”
My first reaction was to remind him how incredibly hot it is in South Florida, and how I wouldn’t be able to wear them.
After a long pause, he said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll be able to wear them where I am going either. Just accept the gift, Genevieve, you can always throw them away later.”
These socks represent a defining moment in my life. They help me remember that over the course of life, you will be likely to find yourself being offered a meaningful gift. It could be a tangible item, or someone’s time, their money, their advice, their help. Dad’s dog socks help me remember how incredibly precious this act of giving is — that this person cares for you, loves you, and wants to support you so much that they offer up a little piece of themselves.
Every gift that comes from the heart has the ability to strengthen a relationship. Accept the gifts you’re offered, graciously and with thanks. You may not realize how meaningful they are until later.
— Genevieve Hoppe, head of school, Unity School of Delray Beach
A symbolic acorn
As a pastor for nearly 36 years, I have experienced generosity beyond anything I deserve — from a Starbucks gift card to an all-expense-paid trip to Israel with my wife. Yet, the singular gift that quickens my heart and draws tears of gratitude each Christmas was given in June of 2012, when I said goodbye to a congregation in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that I had loved for over 12 years to accept a new ministry in Delray Beach.
One of my dearest friends in that church presented me with a tiny box wrapped with clumsy 75-year-old fingers. Over the last 12 years, we had buried his wife, shared more lunches than I can count, spent hours together driving scenic roads and took a day trip to New York City marked by continuous laughter.
Inside, I found a gold acorn Christmas ornament. He said that 12 years ago when I became his pastor, I was then only an acorn in his life. But in that time, our relationship has grown into a mighty oak tree.
Some months ago, Bill moved his church membership to the church triumphant and he will celebrate his first Christmas with his Lord in heaven this year. That simple gold ornament hangs on my Christmas tree and each time I see that small acorn, I’m filled with gratitude for the gifts of friendship and love we shared.
— Doug Hood, senior pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach
Grandson changed me
Some people say, “I don’t really care about gifts, I have everything I want.”
I envy them because I care about gifts and still seem to want things. As a Christian pastor I preach annually that “Jesus is the best gift of this and any Christmas.”
And I believe it.
But the second-best gift I ever received was in the middle of the pandemic, three days before Christmas when my grandson was born. It may be commonplace to say, “I didn’t realize how much it would change me,” but it has changed me. And my wife, Grandma Zu Zu, and my son, now “Dad.”
It’s the reason climate change is really starting to bother me. The change shows in how much I hope he’ll play guitar like me. He wasn’t on any list or in any sermon. He just was. And is. What a gift!
— Andy Hagen, lead pastor, Advent Church, Boca Raton
Family is everything
When I left my country, the Philippines, to come to the United States for work, I knew that it would be difficult for me to go home on Christmas. That’s the nature of working in health care and as a priest.
Because of some immigration restrictions, I was only able to go home and visit my country three years after I landed to the United States.
Finally, I was able to return home in 2005 during the Christmas season. In early November, I got my green card, proof of a permanent U.S. resident status, meaning I could travel freely outside the U.S. Then, the excitement of seeing my country and my loved ones, the joy I felt as I picked some Christmas presents for my family and close friends, and the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with family and loved ones was the greatest Christmas present I ever got.
I don’t know when this opportunity will happen again in my life. I share the love of family with those who are around me on Christmas. I pray that my presence to those people who the Lord has entrusted to my care will bring joy to their lives and draw them closer to their loved ones as well, on Christmas and throughout the year.
— Father Dennis Gonzales, St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, Delray Beach
A POW’s compelling log
My grandfather, James Feerick, volunteered for the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the Air Force) and was a bombardier when he was shot down over Germany. He ended up in the same POW camp The Great Escape memorialized. My grandfather led choir practice to cover up the sound of hammering inside the barracks and would sing his favorite songs to encourage the men, even when he was punished for it. At POW reunions, many people said his singing kept their spirits alive and helped them survive.
In 2013, my parents gave my sisters and me a reproduced version of my grandfather’s wartime log that he kept as a POW. It is full of names and roles of other prisoners, sketches and journal entries. My parents added pictures and entries that testify to the full life he lived after the war. It is a gift that inspires us to live life to the full and never forget that acts of heroism can be as simple as a song.
— the Rev. Kevin McQuone, spiritual director and assistant professor of pastoral theology at St. Vincent De Paul Regional Seminary, Boynton Beach
A Hanukkah miracle
Most of my possessions were in storage because I was renovating a house. When it was time to move into our home, I discovered that the head of the moving company had disappeared. A few boxes were returned, and we were making do with what we had.
But all of my ritual objects were gone! The night before Hanukkah, I noticed a box that I’d had a television sitting on top for a few weeks. I moved the television and looked in the box. I found a hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) that was a family heirloom, a piece from the 17th century.
Finding it has become our family’s Hanukkah miracle!
— David Steinhardt, senior rabbi, B’nai Torah Congregation, Boca Raton
Each Hanukkah at my house, we light a menorah that I purchased in Israel while competing as part of the World Maccabiah Games. It gives me an opportunity to think about my many beautiful memories exploring Israel while representing the USA and my Jewish heritage.
— Melissa Perlman, president, BlueIvy Communications
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org