Nine relative strangers joined us for dinner on Christmas Day. That may be better than eating with nine strange relatives. Let me explain . . .
We belong to a co-op for older people. Like a babysitting co-op, we trade favors; rides to the doctor’s office or the airport are high on the list. And we get together socially. We are very close to some of the members, especially our sponsors, but we don’t know everyone. About a week before Christmas, one of the organizers of the co-op sent an email to its fifty-some members asking if any of those who would be alone on Christmas Day would like to join her for dinner and a movie.
WE were going to be alone on Christmas Day, since the East Coast half of our extended family is Jewish and the other half lives so far away on the West Coast. Jacquie decided to invite everyone to our house who wanted to come for Christmas dinner.
The folks who came were people I knew from a little bit to not at all. Jacquie knew everyone at least a little bit. We were about equally balanced between Christians and Jews.
As we began dessert, Jacquie asked each person to respond briefly to three questions:
- What is your name and what is one thing you want us to know about you?
- Who did you once spend the holidays with that you are thinking of this year?
- What was the greatest act of kindness you received this year?
One of our guests talked about her husband of 55 years. She met him at a meeting she had organized to protest the execution of the Rosenbergs.
One guest read a “Lake Woebegone” type of reminiscence about good-hearted women she remembered from her childhood. I noted her detail that a lot of these good hearts were baptized Lutheran but became Methodists as their hearts enlarged.
One guest, a retired physician, described his desire to treat a new patient, humanity, which is in danger of dying from climate change.
His wife described the transformation of her own heart as she participated in caring for a dying friend.
Several people who moved here from such different places as Central Europe, the East Coast or the hills of Kentucky described kindnesses that they received as they found a new home in Cleveland.As we looked back on Christmas dinner from Boxing Day, it struck me that it was different from a family gathering in that, when family gathers around a holiday table, everyone thinks that they know you. They probably do. It is good to be known — and loved.
But when strangers gather around a holiday table, we are open to discovering new things about other people, and ourselves. They get to tell their stories and we get to choose what we will tell them. As we listen carefully to each other, we also get listened to. And we listen to ourselves. We come to know ourselves and others in a new way. A marvelous Christmas present.