“Loading Up the Little Red Wagon,” Ensign, Dec. 2003, 42
It was the day before Christmas. Lights and ornaments gleamed from our Christmas tree in the corner window, and the pine aroma filled our home. Packages of various shapes and sizes were wrapped in bright paper and adorned with jauntily tied bows and colorful Christmas stickers. From the stereo came the refrains of Christmas carols. In my pantry, red and green canisters contained treats and goodies: divinity, fudge, iced Christmas cookies, candied pretzels, and brownies. The refrigerator had ingredients for delicious holiday meals: fresh cranberries, a turkey and a ham, mushrooms for stuffing, chestnuts for roasting.
We had sent carefully selected gifts to loved ones in faraway cities. Our cards had been mailed with greetings and wishes. I had surprises for my husband and three boys to discover in the morning. But I was not yet ready for Christmas in the way that counted: instead of feeling joy and excitement, all I felt was heartache, homesickness, and loneliness. We had recently moved to a new state, and I acutely missed my family, old neighborhood, and dear friends.
As I stood at my window looking at the houses of my new neighbors, tears slipped down my cheeks. We were surrounded by strangers.
I said a quiet prayer: “Please, help me somehow get the Christmas spirit. I’ve done everything I can think of, and I’m still sad.”
Moments later, my oldest son came bounding up the stairs. “Hey, Mom! When are we taking treats around to the neighbors?” In our former neighborhood, we had traditionally filled baskets with homemade goodies and delivered them along with a carol on Christmas Eve.
“Oh, honey. We can’t do that this year. We don’t know these people. We haven’t even met most of them.”
“So? What difference does that make? We’ve always taken stuff to our neighbors on Christmas Eve. It’s a tradition!” He would not take no for an answer, and I couldn’t come up with a good enough reason why we shouldn’t continue the tradition. We had plenty of goodies. I had green paper plates and red tissue to wrap them in.
“OK,” I told him. “You’re right. It is a tradition. Now go count the number of houses down to the corner and back across the street.”
He called for his brothers to join him, and I quickly assembled what we’d need. The boys bounced back through the front door and announced that we’d need 12 gifts.
Within the hour, we had our little red wagon full of 12 brightly wrapped plates of the best samples from our kitchen. Since we knew no names of our neighbors, we’d added tags that said simply, “Merry Christmas! From your new neighbors, the Bowens.” Then I listed our names, address, and phone number.
I was nervous as we walked up the hill to the first house. I had the boys stand in front of me on the doorstep. They weren’t hesitant at all. As the door opened, the boys started to sing the simple lines of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and I joined in halfheartedly.
I was surprised when the attractive woman standing in the doorway started to sniffle. “Oh, thank you!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never had anyone do anything like this for me in my life! I’ve dreamed of moving into a neighborhood where people did things like this. We just moved in from Spokane.” It turned out her family had preceded us to Bellevue, Washington, by one week.
At the next house, the family responded by bringing out huge gingerbread cookies for my boys. They introduced us to their two teenage children, who offered their services as baby-sitters.
Cars filled the driveway of the next home. A party was obviously going on, so I suggested we skip that house. The boys wouldn’t hear of it, so up the stairs we went. As we sang, a whole clan came into the hall to listen. The couple who lived there introduced us to their grown-up sons and daughters who were gathered with their spouses and children to spend Christmas Eve with them. The family’s obvious love for one another reminded me of my parents, brothers, and sisters. As I fondly remembered times when we had gathered at my parents’ home, love and appreciation began to squeeze out my loneliness. I felt comforted as I realized I would be part of such gatherings again in the future.
Next, a warmhearted, grandmotherly woman hugged my children after we sang at her door. She called her husband to join her and insisted we sing another carol. “Children are the secret ingredient of a magical Christmas,” she told me. “Thank you for sharing yours with us. They are angels!” She stood in her doorway and waved to us until we were well on our way.
No one answered at the next door or the next, but we left our gifts on their porches.
An Asian woman timidly opened the next door. We noticed pairs of shoes and beautiful embroidered satin slippers neatly lined up along the hall. We sang our song and then tried to introduce ourselves, but she interrupted by motioning for us to wait a minute. Using a foreign language, she called up the stairs to someone. Soon a young man joined us, and he interpreted for us. He explained that his mother was from China and did not speak English. They owned and operated a restaurant in town. He wrote her name and phone number on a card for us and thanked us profusely for the gift. As we walked back down the driveway, the boys were thrilled to have heard someone speak another language and were fascinated by the evidence of her Chinese culture.
Across the street, we met a young couple with a little toddler and a family with a preschooler who could be a play pal for my youngest son. These families were pleased to meet us and promised to visit or contact us soon.
As we walked back to our home, pulling our empty red wagon behind us, we sang more of our favorite carols. My husband’s car was in the driveway; he had arrived home from work. He stepped out on the porch and called to us, “Where have you been?”
My oldest son answered, “Where do you think? We’ve been taking treats to the neighbors! And Dad, we’ve met the coolest people.”
“Merry Christmas, honey!” I said exuberantly. I was now full of Christmas cheer. “We’ve been out making friends.”
That night, after we’d eaten our traditional dinner, made long-distance calls to the grandparents, hung the stockings, read the beautiful Christmas story from the scriptures, left out cookies and milk for Santa, said a family prayer, and tucked the boys in bed, I returned to the front room to look at the Christmas tree. Visible through the window, our neighbors’ Christmas lights gleamed like stars through the darkness.
I thought of that first Christmas star and felt grateful that my son had insisted we continue a family tradition by serving the strangers on our street. “Merry Christmas,” I whispered as I looked out my front window at the homes of our new friends. Their Christmas lights twinkled in reply.