This piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on December23, 2000.
My coworkers and I were subjected to a very convoluted office gift exchange for many years. We finally eliminated it after the lone worker who kept it going finally retired. Her concept, which involved giving a gift every day for four days, got very expensive. Her system was laced with guilt and peer pressure and was way out of sync with the spirit of the season.
Late last October we sat together in a staff meeting and lamented the waste of giving one another tiny packages of “joy” that didn’t really elicit said emotion. Most of us wanted to wish our coworkers well by word of mouth, perhaps by a kind deed, but certainly not by material possessions. There seemed to be no way out of this holiday quagmire.
After the organizer’s retirement, we all agreed not to continue with the current system, but stone silence greeted the call for what to do instead. Finally, one soul spoke up.
“We are all blessed,” she declared, “but others are not.” She wanted to “adopt” a a family. We could visit our largess on them, the truly needy, and not on one another.
The rest of the staff members chimed in. Yes, yes, yes. Through the Salvation Army we received the names and ages of the children in our adopted family, along with their wish list. They didn’t ask for much: a coat, shoes, hats, a toy car. We quickly divided up the list and went shopping. We bought what they wanted, and more.
This, we quickly concluded, was fun. When we shopped for useless but cute gifts for our fellow staffers, it was stressful, a chore to complete. When we tried to select just the right gift for a child who needed our help, we reveled in the true spirit of the holiday. The stack of gaily wrapped gifts grew higher and higher each day.
We adopted the entire family and bought gifts for everyone – mom, dad and the four children. Gifts for the dad came as generously as gifts for the three-year-old.
The team spirit that came from our holiday project didn’t come from an outside trainer or hired consultant. It didn’t happen in a classroom or during a retreat but came from the best part of every employee.
Our staff is very diverse in religious backgrounds and faiths but we all caught the spirit of the holiday. It didn’t matter if we celebrated Christmas or not, we all wanted to buy a gift for the family. We all wanted to donate food and other staples to lighten their load and brighten their holiday. We all preferred to reach out to the family rather than purchase a gift that is not needed or appreciated.
My coworkers and I will awaken on Christmas morning, safe and secure in our homes, watching our children or grandchildren’s joy. All of us will pause at some point on that dear morning and imagine the face of a child we will never meet, tearing the wrapping paper off our personally wrapped present that contains her dearest wish.
We didn’t save the world or the city or the community, or even this particular family. We saw a need and filled it; we adopted a family and embraced the season as we saw it. And along the way, we had some fun.
Kathleen Vallee Stein