I was 24 at the time, with my “quarter century” mark just around the corner. This was not the best Christmas for me – or at least not one I was looking forward to.
I was in Edmonton at the time, traveling across Canada (but in Edmonton at the moment), and I was wearing out my welcome with my uncle and aunt who lived in the city. It was so bad by this time that while they were planning a trip up to my aunt’s parents home for Christmas Eve and Day, I was not invited along.
I initially made arrangements to go to Banff and hang out with some travelers I’d met and become friends with. But money was tight, and the plans were always up in the air. By the 22rd, when I was told to leave the home I was staying in, the plans were dead. So I booked into the Edmonton Youth Hostel, a place I stayed at briefly when I first arrived in the city, and prepared to camp out there till the New Year.
The care package from my parents and brothers arrived the same day – shipped overnight from Ottawa at considerable expense. I had lots of presents, where many of the hostellers didn’t have any. It made me feel bad, but I was told by my new acquaintances that it wasn’t to worry about.
Some of my fellow hostellers did have their share of presents coming in, including two Australian sisters, Joy and Amanda. Initially I thought of Amanda and her sister as a bit of a spoiled pair, and was put off somewhat by their opening of presents that had arrived from Australia a day or two before I got to the hostel. I was even more put off when Amanda claimed, on the 23rd, that she was hitting the various pawn and buy and sell shops in Edmonton to sell most of the gifts. She also tried to sell various things to other hostellers, and a few of the items were bought. “These are gifts from her loved ones, and she so callously sells them without a thought?” was my thinking.
I admit I was also young, and Amanda was, in today’s vernacular, a hottie, so I didn’t let it bother me long. By the evening of the 23rd, the hosteller crowd had gotten together in the main room for a game of “Hostel Rummy”, which is a card game but one with some risque rules. I won’t get into those here, but many a drink had been had, and people were feeling fine by the end of the evening. I stayed up for a while chatting with Amanda and I found out much more about her. I found out she was actually quite a caring, socially conscious person. She was very dismayed with the poverty she saw in the neighbourhood around Edmonton’s IYHF Hostel, and she kept dropping hints about “tomorrow, I get to do something about it”.
Me? I was fairly drunk and again, just 24, and the hormones were raging. I only had a few thoughts in my mind. So I tried to be suave, “interesting” to her, and as such, I feigned interest in pretty much everything she said. It must have been convincing because she said to me late before we went to bed (different rooms) that she wanted me to go someplace with her tomorrow. It was something she planned on doing on her own, but she wanted me to come along. I readily agreed.
The next day, we went out at around 2pm, and she steered me to the local Safeway, where we bought three large turkeys and about 20 minor presents. I thought “wow, she’s going to do a special party for the hostel crowd”. But nope. Laden down with all our goods (we had about 60 lbs of turkeys!), our next stop was the Mission hospice run by the Salvation Army. Without very much fanfare, she met one of the house leaders and handed over the food and presents.
Then we walked the neighbourhood some more, and she made a point of stopping at every street bum she could find, and handed over a $5 or $10 bill, and telling them about the meal she set up with the local Mission house. She gave out about $300 this way, before she finally ran out of funds.
Me, I was surprised and ashamed the entire time. See, all the money she spent and gave away was proceeds from selling her Christmas presents, and some cash she had on hand. I still held on to my money for part of the time, but about half way through our handout session, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had, at the time, several cameras that were my prized possessions – a Minolta Maxxum 7000i body, a 5000i body, and three lenses. Pawn stores closed at 5pm that day, and we walked by one at 4:50pm. I went inside, and pawned off everything except for the 5000i body and one lens – the cheapest of the camera equipment I had. I got about $300 from the deal (about 1/4 the overall value of what I pawned), and Amanda and I went around further and further out, handing out this money.
I didn’t do it so much out of want as out of shame. But whatever the reason, it was all good.
That evening, I was back at the hostel (Amanda was at a friend’s house for Christmas Eve dinner) and I looked at my stash of boxes and presents from my family back east. I was thinking that just a day before I was sullen and pissed off because I was away from family at Christmas, that my uncle and aunt ditched me, and that this would be my crappiest Christmas ever. Perspective sure can change in a day. On the eve of the 24th, I was thinking I was one of the luckiest people around. I had parents very upset at my uncle and aunt because they thought family should stick with family on Christmas. I had family back east that wanted to get presents in my hands on time to show their care. And I had just witnessed a private, unadvertised (save for my shallow interest bringing me along) act of kindness by a virtual stranger.
What I did next wasn’t done so much out of charity and unreserved wont for giving, as it was out of shame – but sometimes, shame is good for one self and others.
I opened up all the presents from my family that evening – but very carefully, so as not to damage the wrapping. I looked at all the gifts, and re-wrapped everything that wasn’t “very personal, for me” type things – I think 10 out of 12 gifts. There were 12 people staying in the hostel that I could tell had no real Christmas presents from family – I had a problem. So I went through my personal travel goods, and came up with another two items, and managed to wrap those with discarded wrapping from my two kept gifts.
The next morning, I handed out one gift to each person, fairly careful to give guy gifts to the guys, and gender neutral gifts to the girls. Amanda got the best gift in the bunch – a very sophisticated travel radio / alarm clock my Dad sent me (which she sold a few days later to a fellow traveler – guess what she did with the money). Everyone was surprised yet happy, and it sure did make me feel good, and it gave me the best Christmas ever.
(my charity of choice this year is one that has roots in my passion for quality coffee and espresso. The charity is Coffeekids, a worthwhile organization that helps kids and families in the poorest coffee producing nations. Please help their cause with a donation)