Merlene Davis: Being grateful and passing along blessings is what Christmas is about

The caller, a woman, wanted to know how she could donate some perfectly good, gently used toys to the Faith & Community Christmas Store that God's Net, an arm of the Catholic Action Center, has been hosting for 19 years.

The deadline for giving had passed, but she really wanted to help.

I explained that Ginny Ramsey, co-founder and director of the Catholic Action Center, said donations were welcome any time the store was open. She could still take them in, I said.

I didn't ask the woman's name. Hers was one of many calls I had received inquiring about the Christmas store. Some were seeking a hand and some were offering help.

But this call was a bit different.

As I was about to hang up, the woman said she really wanted to donate the toys because last year she had been a recipient of the store's generosity. She had come upon hard times last year, and the Christmas store was her only means of giving toys to her children, she said. She said she was so grateful for those gifts.

This year, her situation had changed, she said. She was better off financially and wanted to do what she could to provide Christmas for a family who now might be where she had been.

That phone call never left my mind.

I don't know how she and her family had found themselves in a hole last year. I don't know how she climbed out. All I know is that she sounded sincerely grateful for the help she had received and wanted to help someone else experience the generosity she was shown.

That's what Christmas is supposed to be all about, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to be grateful for the ultimate gift given to us and then pass our blessings on to others?

My family hosted five Panamanian students for Thanksgiving and will host four at Christmas. Although my Spanish is nonexistent and their English is in the infant stage, we managed to communicate a little.

I told one student that we would welcome her back at Christmas and that she could enjoy some of our traditions. In Panama, they don't celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day like we do, she said. Instead, the gift-giving is celebrated Jan. 6, Día de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day. It marks the Epiphany, the day of revelation of Christ to the world at large. That day represents when the three kings, magi or wisemen brought gifts to Jesus. (Read more about that in a story we're planning for Saturday's Living section about the meaning of the 12 Days of Christmas.)

Children write letters to Melchior, Gaspar (Casper) and Balthazar, listing their desired gifts, which they might get if they are well-behaved. They place shoes or shoe boxes under their beds, into which the three kings leave small gifts. Instead of milk and cookies for Santa, the children leave hay or grass for the men's animals.

In Panama, just as in the United States, a gift is given to represent a gift that was received centuries ago.

Those of us who are financially stable should be sharing those blessings with others, helping someone else become self-sustaining. Those of us who have received the wisdom of experience should be dispensing that knowledge to others, improving the next generation.

The woman who called was grateful for gently used items that would bring a smile to the face of her children.

She hadn't asked for new toys, had no reason to expect them. But thanks to unknown donors who wanted to help unknown recipients, that caller could watch her children smile on Christmas morning.

Those donors not only gave toys to a stranger's children, but they gave joy to a stranger who thought the hole she was in was too deep for joy to reach her.

The donors didn't know her race, her culture or her religion. They did not question whether their tax money supported her and her children, or whether the children were born outside of marriage. Those donors gave because they wanted to give.

The caller wanted to give because those donors had given to her.

As a Christian, I believe that through a gift given to us in the form of Jesus, we have received mercy, grace and redemption. Surely, throughout the year we can find ways to give those gifts to others.