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December 24, 2004

Raisin a Christmas Memory

Maybe they still do this at Christmas where you live. Churches organize a big effort to help poor families in their area.

They’ll ask for canned goods and other necessities, and they’ll spend half a day sorting out how much food goes to how big a family, packing up boxes in the social area of the church. It’s a holiday tradition that some people never talk much about, they just come and do it—getting ready to visit the poor on Christmas Eve.

Besides the food, there’s also a lot of clothing. Hand-me-downs, or clothing donated by local merchants. We lived in a small town, and it was easy for church people to learn whose kids wore what sizes. After all—Christmas was coming, and we wanted to get it right.

At least, that’s how they did it here in Michigan, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. No caroling, no showing-off. Just quiet trips out to wherever these families happened to live. We’d spend a few minutes at each place on our “rounds,” trying to help make people’s lives just a little better.

So one year (I think I was about 10 or 12), I was allowed to go out with the grown-ups as they made their holiday rounds. I learned about poverty and Christmas gift-giving—and I learned about Christmas raisins, all on that one unforgettable snowbound night.

Some of these families lived out in the country. That meant we had to stick to the main roads for as much of the trip as possible. That night there were three vehicles in our group—two cars and a big truck, fitted with a snow-plow. We needed that plow on the back roads, just clearing a way to the houses we were going to visit. And when we got there, we’d knock, ever so politely, and then we’d wait.

Even as a kid I could tell when the people inside just seemed to know who was out there, for three out of the four times someone called out, “Be with you in just a moment, Parson,” even though this year the preacher was back in town and we were doing these rounds without him.

Doors would come open and in most cases we’d wind up trying to avoid crying, because that was the expression we saw on the faces of those folks we came to visit.

Hindsight says it was a powerful mixture of gratitude and anger—but at age 10 or 12 all I saw were the half-suppressed tears. We’d be invited to stay, to share a cup of coffee (“or whatever,” as one recipient put it). But no, thanks, my Dad and the other grown-ups said. We’ve got to be going, but we hope you all have a good holiday. And Merry Christmas to all, as we trooped out into the snow and back to the cars and the snow-truck.

So that year, there was one last stop in the country, just at the very edge of town.

This place was socked in with snow, not a single tire track and only a narrow path shoveled out between the ramshackle house and the first real outhouse I’d ever seen, back behind the house.

I remember standing there in snow up to my knees, grateful beyond words for the indoor plumbing at home, only about half a mile away. Compared to this place, our house was almost a palace—or so it seemed to a kid only 10 or 12 years old. My father knocked on the door to this house. “Be right there, Parson!” a voice called out inside.

These folks were now into their third generation here in the area. They’d come north from some place like Kentucky or Tennessee, back in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Like thousands of other folks from southern states, they’d come looking for jobs, at one of the auto plants opening up in Michigan. But for reasons known only to them, that dream never came true and they were too poor to move back south again.

And now here they were on Christmas Eve, trying not to look angry because people who meant well were standing in snow outside their door, waiting to give them something they could not give themselves.

The father finally opened the door, and there the family all sat, ramrod-straight, elbow to elbow at an ancient-looking dining table in the center of the room. They were eating their Christmas Eve supper in that room.

Oatmeal, with raisins on it. Not a turkey or goose or even a chicken in sight. It was like being in a foreign country, maybe—no sign at all this was supposed to be one of the happiest nights of the year.

We all trooped in, with our packages and smiles, trying not to notice there was just one small pot-belly stove for heat in this room. Even with the front door closed, it was cold enough to see your breath.

Like the other places we’d gone to, we were invited to stay. But my father was kind of the spokesman for our group, and he politely told them no. And I stood there beside him, trying not to have any expression on my face. One of these kids was only a year behind me in school, and I wasn’t sure what my face was supposed to be telling them, there as I counted the clouds of my own breath.

I stood there with a box of something in my arms, pressing the front of my jacket closer to my chest, hoping I’d warm up—somehow. And then I looked down at the nearest bowl of oatmeal, and one of the raisins began to move.

They'd been swatting houseflies and putting them on the oatmeal in place of raisins.

I must have made a noise of surprise, when that fly crawled up out of the oatmeal and then fell to the tabletop. The father of the family saw where I was looking, at the fly trying to beat its wings to escape. The anger came back to his face, just briefly, before he looked sad again.

Minutes later, we got out of there and went home to our own families. To the warmth, and the TV, and the palace of an indoor toilet.

This happened more than 40 years ago. And to this day, I will never forget the mixture of expressions on the faces of those we visited. Just as to this day, I still can’t eat oatmeal or raisins, no matter what time of year it may be.

Posted by Weaselteeth at December 24, 2004 10:47 PM


I don't care for oatmeal anyway, but I think that would have done it for me too, if I did. What a sad story. Interesting how you noted anger in the faces to whom the packages were being delivered. We tend to forget the damage we can do to pride when we feel we are being charitable, regardless of how obvious the need is. It's a great story for reminding us all, even ten-year-olds, to be thankful for our blessings.

Merry Christmas, WT. :)

Posted by: LadyBug at December 25, 2004 07:16 AM

I grew up under similar conditions and I'm reminded of the quote.

A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.
--Jack London

Posted by: Jack at December 25, 2004 11:02 AM

Hi to both of you...and thanks for that great quote, Jack. Maybe that's why I noticed those angry glances. We were the ones with the indoor toilets.

But Puter, the one thing about this that should have bothered me right off didn't hit home until decades later.

That house was so cold that flies should not have been around at all, much less active.

There are lots of explanations, but the two most likely are, either someone kept the flies alive somehow, breeding them for food, or else the family had deliberately let the place get cold that night, catering to the image that the charity-minded would accept most.

Posted by: wt at December 25, 2004 01:52 PM