“Gift for a Stranger,” Ensign, Dec. 1998, 27
As a child growing up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and as the oldest in my family, I had the privilege of being a conspirator with my parents for eight years in a remarkable Christmas adventure.
During the first few weeks of November, my mother would say to me, “Donavene, it’s time to go downtown. Do you think the winter coats will be in?” When I was very small, I didn’t understand why Mother would ask me if the coats were in, for how was I to know such things? I went along for the fun of it, though, as Mother made our day together very special, including a stop for lunch at a wonderful restaurant where I could order anything I desired from the menu. I looked forward to this annual outing with only my mother for company.
Now, these were the days before there were malls and large shopping complexes. We didn’t own a car, so in order to get downtown we’d have to walk approximately two miles, braving the snowy, blustery Canadian weather in order to catch two different trolleys and finally a bus that would deliver us to Eaton’s. Eaton’s was a large department store in the center of town. It was a bustling place to be, with shoppers rushing around carrying many parcels.
Mother always managed to find the very coat she wanted for my father. I always wondered why my father got a new coat every year when he had a perfectly good one in the coat closet at home. It wasn’t until I was about seven years old that I began to figure the whole thing out.
Every year Mother searched through the enormous racks of coats, looking for the perfect one that would protect Father from the harsh winter. It had to be a heavy, full-length, fully lined wool coat, and, of course, it had to be at the right price, for Mother had just so much money to buy it.
A winter coat with those specifications wasn’t inexpensive. My mother worked many long hours as a silk spotter for a dry-cleaning company. For many months preceding November, she would work overtime hours to accumulate enough extra income so that she could purchase a coat for my father as well as a few simple Christmas gifts for us children. In those days there weren’t any dry-cleaning machines; all the cleaning was done by hand. Mother made me promise not to tell Father she often felt unwell after working long hours at the company. Her gift to him was truly a gift of love.
We didn’t open our presents on Christmas morning, as is the custom in most families. As soon as we woke up, we would rush to see what was inside our stockings that hung on the mantel. There would be oohs and aahs over each little item. After breakfast we would attend church as a family (I had not yet joined the LDS Church), singing carols all the way home and savoring every moment together. Father would then bundle himself up and leave us for a few hours to volunteer at the local mission center, which was a homeless shelter and soup kitchen for the unfortunate. There were mostly men there, and almost all of them were suffering from some degree of alcoholism. My father himself was a recovering alcoholic and had helped establish the Alcoholics Anonymous program in Canada.
While Father was gone, Mother would cook our Christmas dinner. My job was to set the table with our nicest silver and china. I loved this assignment because I was given free rein and could decide upon the colors of the table linens. I’d arrange and rearrange the place settings several times before they were perfect in my eyes. All the while, Christmas carols would be playing on our radio, and Mother and I would sing along in harmony to the music. There was great anticipation concerning the opening of the Christmas presents that evening, and the excitement was at a fever pitch by dinnertime.
My father seemed to know just when to make his entrance. He’d come home a short time before our Christmas feast would begin. Accompanying him would be an unknown gentleman whom we were always expecting but never certain about. I remember one particular guest who didn’t have any shoelaces in his shoes and wore a holey sweater.
Nothing was ever said beforehand about this Christmas guest; however, Mother always prepared more than we could eat, just in case. When Father would arrive, he would go into the kitchen, and with a smile on his face he’d tell my mother that he’d brought a guest for dinner and then ask for her consent. She’d always appear a little surprised and flustered but give the same answer: “Of course it’sall right, Clifford; there’s plenty to eat.” It took me a long time to figure out that this was just a little game between the two of them. When I did realize this, it became even more special for me too as I watched their facial expressions and the sly nuances in their actions throughout the day, and I’d secretly smile to myself.
We’d introduce ourselves to our guest and then sit down to a wonderful feast that Mother had prepared with loving hands. She would hover over all of us, making sure we each had enough on our plates, especially our guest. She had a gift for making him feel a part of our family and not a stranger at all.
I found each stranger fascinating and enjoyable. We would find out many different things about the world and about him too. We’d share our lives with him and feel very lucky to have this fine gentleman among us.
Our dinner would be over all too quickly, and then my father would thank the man for coming and enriching our family. Just before escorting our guest back to the mission center, Father would go to the coat closet and say to the man, “It’s mighty cold out there, and I noticed you don’t have a coat. Here, take mine and feel the warmth of our family on your journey.” The man would gratefully accept the gift, and then Father—dressed in his winter gear but without a coat—would accompany him on the long walk back to the center, which was many miles away.
On his return, we would thaw him out with hot water bottles before we opened our presents. With great anticipation, Mother would save her gift for Father until last. He would act surprised every year as he opened up his box to find a beautiful new coat inside. Mother would explain, with a coy little smile on her face, that she felt it was time for him to have a new one. Often there would be tears on my father’s face, and he would be so touched that he couldn’t utter a word. The secret between them would be safe for another year.
As each Christmas celebration would come to an end, we would stop and talk about the man who had helped make our Christmas so wonderful. Then Father would get out the Bible and read to us about the first Christmas from the book of Luke:
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:9–14).
As I pause to remember that tranquil scene, I can fondly see my mother and father looking at each other with a dear, sweet love in their eyes and a hint of a sparkle for the secret they shared that day and would share again for many years to come. My heart will be forever touched by that Christmas coat, by the person who wore it, and especially by those who gave it, my parents, for their lives reflected the selfless love of giving that is part of what Christmas is all about.