I worry for a bit about asking the question. I worry people might think I'm being obtuse, or insensitive. I mean, the people I'm asking live in a homeless shelter. What do I think Christmas means to them?
I don't know. And so, I ask.
I find Tony sitting at a table on our second floor Day Area. His table companion has his head down, resting on folded arms. Asleep, he doesn't stir when I sit down and begin to chat with Tony.
I ask him my question. "What does Christmas mean to you?"
He doesn't hesitate. Doesn't stop to think. His answer is spontaneous. A big smile spreading across his face as he says, "Time with family. Sharing."
And he tells me about the first Christmas he spent in Canada. He'd come with his mother and three siblings from Jamaica when he was four. He laughs at the memory. "I was scared of snow man. I mean scared. But, I was the most inquisitive of my family. I wanted to taste that white fluffy stuff, even in my fear, so I ran outside and tried to catch me some. That didn't work too well so I picked up a handful and licked it. Man. I didn't know I needed to put mittens on!" He pauses. Looks me in the eye. Smiles. "Sure glad it wasn't yellow."
I laugh. And Tony continues on.
"I think Christmas is about shared memories. About cooking together and sharing a meal and laughing. Oh yes, laughing. When I was a kid my mom had a friend, Miss Wolf. She never had kids so she adopted us as her family. She loved me and I loved her and when I think of Christmas I think of Miss Wolf and how generous and kind she was."
He looks around at the people sitting at tables, reading, playing cards, resting their heads on their arms. Beside us a young man sits at a table with three young women. Somebody says something he doesn't like, and he begins to curse and swear, loudly. He gets up. Thumps the table. Walks off. One of the girls runs after him. "Jase. Jase," she calls. "Nobody meant no disrespect." And he comes back and sits down.
The tableau unfolds beside us and Tony keeps talking, ignoring the commotion, the language, the furor. "You gotta block that stuff out," he tells me before I even mention anything. "You know, being here doesn't take away who I am as a human being. Nothing can do that unless I let it." He pauses again. Looks around. "And I won't let this place do that."
"I can't remember a time when I wasn't friendly. I think coming to Canada so young, being the youngest, I didn't know I was different. And in my home, my mother made everyone welcome. So, I just always assumed that's the way the world is."
I thank him for sharing his story and move on to ask someone else. I want a balanced perspective. Not just clients, but volunteers and staff too. I ask, Andy, a long-time volunteer who is getting ready to end his shift for the day. "I don't know," he tells me when I ask him my question as he unloads his wallet and keys and phone from his locker in the Volunteer Office. "I'm single and I think Christmas is meant for families. For kids. I love the laughter of kids at Christmas."
And we talk and he throw in tidbits of information like a gambler feeding a slot machine. "I don't really like to think about Christmas," he says. "It's a tough time." And a little later. "My mother died on Christmas Day five years ago. I was her caretaker for those last months and I couldn't come here to volunteer. Didn't want to compromise her already compromised immune system." And he shrugs his shoulders. "Yeah, I don't really like Christmas. But if I did, it would always be about family."
I thank him for his honesty and for sharing his spirit so generously. He closes the locker door, dons his jacket. "I don't work," he tells me as he tucks wallet and phone into a pocket of his jeans. "I took a sabbatical and now I just volunteer and travel and ski and," he stops and nods his head. Up and down. "Yeah. Christmas is about family. Gotta go." And in a flash he's out the door of the volunteer office where I've encountered him.
I walk back onto the second floor Day Area and ask Johnnie, a front line staff what Christmas means to him. "It's about the birth of Christ," he says. "That's it."
"What does Christmas at the shelter mean?" I ask.
He sighs. "You know, it can be a bad time for people here. Christmas is all about family and most of these people have been rejected by their families or they're too embarrassed to go home. You can feel it in the air almost. How they miss the people they love." He laughs. It's gentle. Not at all harsh. "This place is pretty mellow and quiet around Christmas," he adds. "Too many lonely people struggling to make the best of a situation that's pretty hard to live with."
Another staff member, Al, is more pragmatic. "It means one year is gone and next year could be better."
Jack wanders past and stops to listen. He's drifted in and out of homelessness for much of his adult life. He's just got a full time job and is hoping to be gone from the shelter by Christmas. He tells me this with great enthusiasm as though the miracle of a job will fix everything. I pray he's right. He's been here before but his gambling addiction keeps bringing him back. Perhaps one woman, a relatively new client to the shelter had it right when she said, "Christmas is a time of perpetual hope. Doesn't matter if you're living in a shelter or where you are, Christmas is about hope."
Jack finishes telling me about his job and asks what I'm doing on the second floor. "I'm asking people what Christmas means to them," I tell him.
His reply is quick and easy. "It's about family." And then he laughs. "You know, burying the hatchet and all of that."
And others agree, though one volunteer has a different slant on the relevance of 'family time' at Christmas. "It's about avoiding family at all costs," she says laughingly. "I think it's why I like it here so much," she adds. "I don't like getting gifts. I like giving. And I really like knowing that here, i can help people feel loved, not neglected."
And people keep coming up to share. "It's all about family." "Being with the one's you love." "Oh, it's about children. Their laughter." And other's agree. "Oh yeah. There's nothing better than little kid's laughter at Christmas."
I see the theme. Feel it. Sense it with my being. It is all around. Permeating the air. Christmas is about family. And when far from the one's you love, you make a family with the one's you're with, no matter your circumstances or condition. "We gotta share whatever we've got," says Barb. A tiny birdlike woman, her journey through homelessness and living on the streets has produced three kids she's extremely proud of but whom she seldom sees. "I'm just too messed up for them to be near," she says. "They deserve better."
"I'm hoping to see them at Christmas," she adds. "I just became a great-grandmother. I'm hoping to see my great-granddaughter soon."
I wish her well. She calls over to a friend. "Lorraine! You gotta come answer Louise's question."
As a tall native woman approaches, Barb turns back to me. "Can I have a hug?"
"Of course," I reply. And we hug and I know. The truth is there between us. No matter our condition. The depth of our faith. The substance of our wallets or the colour of our skin. No matter if it's a carpenter and his pregnant wife seeking refuge in a stable or a homeless man seeking a bed in a shelter, Christmas reminds us, we are all connected. We are all family.