Every gift I’ve bought this year is sitting on my kitchen table, ready to be wrapped when the doorbell rings. I’ve got a wine bottle in my hand as I turn around and look through the frosted glass of my front door to see who it could be. The shape doesn’t look familiar, and I’m not expecting anyone. The plan was for me, this wine, and a cheesy Christmas playlist to finally get everything wrapped and under the tree.
I open the door and a man with a shy smile says “Merry Christmas, sir!” I must have looked rather funny standing there, staring, ignorantly not saying anything in return. I can’t stop staring at this guy. He reminds of my Dad twenty years ago.
He’s wearing a black toque, with the knit lines running straight up and down, forming a funny little peak right on the top of his head. He’s got a blue and green check shirt on – snaps, not buttons, and over it a heavy flannel jacket of brown and black plaid. He’s wearing jeans and workbooks. His hands are large and thick, and he’s stuck one out before me, waiting for me shake and say Merry Christmas back.
His hand is rough and his shake is as hesitant as his smile. He bends down and picks up a wreath that’s been leaning against his leg. It’s perfectly round, lush green with a red bow tied top centre. He turns it toward me and begins his pitch.
“My wife and I are going door to door, selling these wreaths.” He points at his wife, who is knocking on a door across my parking lot. “She’s just finished making them and they’ll last you through Christmas, no problem. Ya want one?”
“How, uh, much? How much are you selling them for?,” I stammer. He doesn’t sound like Dad. But he’s wearing his clothes, and he carries himself the same way. Dad would have been just as uncomfortable trying to make this sale.
When he says ten dollars I spot six bucks in change on the key rack by the door.
“Sure, come on in. I just have to run upstairs and grab some change.” I’m still looking him over in complete amazement. The longer he’s here the more I notice. He’s got a pack of smokes in his shirt pocket and you can smell it off him. His hair is black and wiry and he coughs as he comes in out of the cold.
I’m halfway up the stairs when I realize what I’ve just done. Months of savings, weeks of spending, every gift I have for everyone I love – I’ve just left them unguarded with a stranger who’s only endearing credential is that he reminds me of Da.
I grab the change and dart back downstairs, coming to my senses. Stuff like this has been happening a lot because of the season. Christmas has made me an emotional wreck. I feel everything and trust nothing because it’s just grief working itself out.
As I hand him the money his face lights up and he starts mumbling his thank you’s and turns back toward the still-open door.
“This is great. Tell your wife thank you. What’s your name?”
“Me? I’m James.”
Gulp. Okay. Hold it together, Jay. Admittedly it’s kind of strange that a guy dressed like your Dad, with your Dad’s mannerisms, mumbles and smokes like your Dad, also just happens to have the same name. But what? You think this is some kind of sign?
I do my usual thing, and start to interview him. “How old are your kids, James?” I ask, following a feeling that there was happening here than he let on.
He leans on the doorway, sighs a little, and with the deal now done we speak like men. That’s when I find out why he’s going door to door selling wreaths with his wife four days before Christmas. He’s got four kids at home. Five if you count the oldest who is out on her own. They’re doing what they can to get through Christmas.
If you want to feel like a privileged asshole, stand in your new townhouse with your new car parked out front, with hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts literally on display in your kitchen. There’s so much food in my fridge, as I get ready for a family dinner Monday night, that there are cans and boxes overflowing on to the counter.
My leather jacket is laying on my leather couch with while my iPad and MacBook charge. Oh, and the wine bottle is still waiting to be opened.
For a second I’m embarrassed – not for what I have, but for what I haven’t done. I’ve always been an incredibly hard worker, and I’ve always believed that you need to have two streams of money coming in to your life. I’ve always got a side project, or something on the go. I live a pretty comfortable life. It wasn’t always like this – but in the last couple of years I’ll pulled my shit together and have very little to complain about. I’m not embarrassed for what I have. I’m embarrassed because of what I hadn’t done.
A month ago I said I was adopting a family – and somewhere in the hustle and bustle of getting my own Christmas together I just didn’t do it.
Hearing James talk about his kids and the three different ways he’s tried to make money this month, it got me thinking of the incredible strength of my parents, who year and after year did what they had to do make Christmas an unforgettable experience for my brother and I.
When they were my age they were married, had a house and two young kids. They had bills coming left, right, and centre. For years Dad worked seasonally, and Christmas was pieced together with odd jobs, unemployment cheques and tax returns that Ma would sit on for months – while her and Dad went without – all so their two sons could always experience a Christmas very different from the ones they both knew as children. My mother, with diagnosed rheumatism, continued to cater weddings and Christmas parties long after should have been just so could bank her cheques and give us the Christmas she wanted us to have.
That’s what James and his wife were trying to do for his kids. They took the time to collect broken and trimmed boughs from every tree lot in the city, spend the night sitting around their kitchen table bending and wire-tying them together in to 25 wreaths they piled in their car to hustle door-to-door to scare together $250 – $50 in gifts for each kid, and $50 for the grocery store. They weren’t stopping until they sold every single one. It’s what it was going to take give their family the Christmas they wanted.
I’ve had an incredible year. There has been challenge, change, and opportunity. I’ve has successes and failures. I’ve risked and lost, and I’ve risked and won. I’ve been within and without and I close the year off a stronger, happier man than I was twelve months ago. Like I’ve been saying for more than two years now – I’m more me everyday. None of that happens in isolation. I didn’t do any of that alone. It’s rare, I find, that anything worth doing can honestly be done alone.
Today, James went away from my door knowing that he isn’t alone either. He and his wife aren’t the only two who want their kids to have a Christmas morning worth remembering for the right reasons.
What did I do? Well, that’s between me and James. The more important question is what can you do?