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Lynden Harris: Our Christmas bills

December 16, 2013 

My daughter sang in her sleep. It was an unearthly sound, as if someone or something were singing through her. Sometimes when my son slept, he laughed out loud.

The music and laughter were odd, unexpected gifts, the kinds of tiny rewards we rarely remember. But this is a season for remembering gifts and children, so here are two stories celebrating both.

In the South, there’s an old holiday tradition of plotting on Christmas Day to be the first to shout Christmas Gift! at someone, thereby winning ... well, not much. The point of the game isn’t the candy or coins; it’s the surprise.

We play a slightly different version. My daughter described it this way:

The best Christmas gift I ever got was money. But it wasn’t for me. I’d just moved to LA and was swept up in all things shiny, pretty and new. I’d adopted what I felt was a super-pragmatic, adult attitude about the world – if you didn’t have something, you just weren’t working hard enough and probably didn’t deserve it.

Right before Christmas, my mom gave me an odd present – three large (to me) bills. Two rules: I had to gift it to someone who didn’t know me and I had to do it in person.

It was like the world suddenly opened up. I saw – really saw – people outside my typical circle. I paid attention to those I didn’t know. I actively searched out others who appeared to have less than I. Everyone was of interest; everyone was a potential candidate. I had a job of gifting to do!

Driving home on trash night, I noticed a young mother and two tiny, cute kids walking down my street. They started gently picking through the garbage cans outside my home. The mom showed her 3-yr-old which recyclables were best, and the older sister clumsily helped bag them. The littlest girl watched as I walked inside, which must have looked like some bright happy castle to her. That was when my super-pragmatic-adult-attitude kinda fizzled. Who was I to deem what they deserved?

The look of utter shock on the face of that mother when I handed her the cash is something I think about every Wednesday night (I wash out my recyclables that much better). As is the little girl’s huge dark eyes and tiny brown hands grasping onto her mother’s pants, trying to understand why her mama was crying and if it was good or bad.

Although I’d’ve sure loved to have that cash for my rent, mostly, in the moment, it was the best Christmas gift! I’d ever been honored and humbled to give.

This is the only holiday I know when homelessness and poverty and single parenthood are revered rather than reviled. When the gifts of a child born poor and unhoused are exalted rather than overlooked. One day a year is hardly enough. A lovely woman, a community organizer, said this:

I am shocked all the time at how middle class people come into our community thinking these kids don’t have a calling. Don’t you understand? The difference between your kids and these is that these children haven’t had an opportunity for their gifts to be brought forth. It doesn’t mean those gifts don’t exist. One of these children might be the next great violinist, the scientist who revolutionizes cancer treatments. We’ll never know. Because we are preventing these children from living the life they were created to live.

I’m a gardener. If you take a handful of seeds and just discard them on the ground somewhere, sure, a few might find what they need and start to grow. But most of those seeds will never even sprout, much less reach their potential.

What I’d love to see is the children of our community nurtured and cultivated with the same opportunities as your kids, so they can produce what they were designed to produce. Every one of our kids has a purpose. Every one of our children was handmade by God, just the same as yours.

There’s a reason for the two rules. You have to gift someone you don’t know and you have to do it in person. It keeps us honest. In person, we have to acknowledge both our privilege and our connection. In the moment our hands touch, we remember that we are all handmade by a force beyond any of our ken.

This year we have a new rule. On each bill, you have to write a word or phrase. An intention you’re sending into circulation. Maybe someone will read the word, and it will change their life. Maybe no one will notice a single letter. Maybe the person will spend the money on their children. Maybe they will buy drugs. Whatever. We’re facilitating grace not arbitrating judgment. The words are probably illegal, anyhow.

But maybe because we bothered to send that intention into the world, we ourselves will live a more upright life. Maybe the music will sing through us. Maybe we will laugh out loud. And maybe we’ll remember to wash our recyclables that much better.

Lynden Harris can be reached at

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