Why It Took Me Spending Christmas At An Orphanage To Truly Learn How To Give

Our culture seems to emphasize a race to the top. People want to be the best, whether it’s having the best job, the most successful children, designer clothing, or the newest gadgets. If you aren’t keeping up to date with all the changes, then you are quickly left behind. The irony is that shopping for the holidays begins immediately after the day (sometimes on the day) where we are supposed to be showing gratitude for what we already have. Sadly, for many children and adolescents, Christmas is a time for getting. It’s ingrained in children at an early age that that having the best material goods makes you better than the rest and allows you to get ahead.

Last year I spent six months living at an orphanage in Cameroon. It was the most challenging experience of my 23 years, yet undeniably the best. I was fortunate enough to celebrate Christmas with them and can honestly say that it was the most memorable and happy Christmas I have had. Sure, I missed my family and friends, I missed the snow and Christmas lights, and I missed being home… but it was worth it.

As we grow older, we learn that Christmas isn’t just about giving and receiving gifts, but mainly about being with the ones we love. In Cameroon it is typical for children to receive a new Sunday dress (or suit) and that is their only gift. To the children it is extremely special, but not the most important part of the day. The children at the orphanage didn’t receive new dresses, but for that day the best dresses were taken out of storage and dusted off to be worn. Even still, Christmas is the best day of the year for them. They spend the entire day eating, singing, and dancing.

I bought gifts for the children, but there was never an appropriate time to actually give them. It felt strange and unnatural because I didn’t have gifts for all the visitors. Not sharing with everyone was so against their culture that it would have been rude to present my gifts on that day. So I waited and gave them later. Even still, I realized that giving gifts is more about the giver than the receiver. I wanted to give them something and being raised in a consumer culture, presenting them with a material item was the only way I knew how.

What they gave to me was even better. They gave me a family with over 150 members. They made me feel like I was one of them. They gave me hugs, and kisses, and made me laugh. They showed me that even without the lights, snow, presents, and my blood-relatives, Christmas is a day to appreciate whatever you have, to give in whatever way you know how, and to celebrate by doing whatever makes you and whoever you are with most happy.

I spent this Christmas with my family in the US where we exchanged gifts as is customary. But I also tried to give to my family in other, simpler ways: helping prepare Christmas dinner, sharing laughter, listening to stories, being present. With the new year quickly approaching, people are coming up with ways to create a fresh start. Whether it’s buying a gym membership, setting relationship goals, promising to eat healthier, or finding a boyfriend, people try to better themselves. What the orphanage taught me is that bettering myself can only be done with the improvement of people at large. It has nothing to do with what I possess materially, but with how I interact with the world around me. So when the clock strikes midnight (or even before) think about how you can give during 2016 because progress doesn’t happen with one person. Coming out on top isn’t fun if you have nobody to share it with. Think of how the children who received no gifts at Christmas, are just as happy as those who received 20. Because the gifts isn’t what matters, it’s the idea of giving.

Featured Image via Heidi Katz/Katelyn Jackson.

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