SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2008        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Kirra Denner

Classifying Christmas

As the season quickly melted from summer to winter, skipping fall completely, the time for the annual food drive was approaching.  The year was 1994, and my fifth grade class was sponsoring our own individual food drive aside from the one held by the entire school.  Soon my classmates and I learned we would also be taking a field trip to the downtown homeless shelter to personally deliver the food and other items donated for those in need.

As the month of November came and passed, I was proud that individually, my class had gathered more food than the whole school combined.  Besides the food that was brought in, we had also collected toys, blankets, clothing, and other various items to give to the people at the shelter.  Personally, I had brought in gifts that my family bought at the store, as well as toys, books, and clothing which I no longer needed.  I was very excited and could not wait to deliver our gifts to those less fortunate.

However, as the delivery day approached my excitement had changed into nervousness.   I, like most of my classmates, had never been downtown.  I had driven past it on the freeway catching a glimpse of the tall buildings but had never actually visited there.  I had always thought of it as a bad part of town.  Further I realized, I had never even seen or met anyone who was homeless.  The neighborhood I grew up in was the only familiar territory I had really known.  Everyone had nice homes, new cars, and dressed in the newest and nicest clothes.  My neighborhood took pride in displaying our best for all the other communities to see.  Suddenly, the idea of someone actually being homeless became very foreign to me.

Finally, the day of delivery had come.  I worked through the chilling air to help load the large trucks with the items my class had gathered to donate.  Then the other children and I piled into the vans, cranked up the heater, and started on the journey downtown.  During the van ride my head filled with questions.  Why are people homeless?  Would they always be homeless?  Would they think I was judging them and their situation?  Would they judge me?  

As we exited the freeway, I remember the loud sound of the van doors locking.  We had entered a completely peculiar part of town that seemed as if it had been taken straight from a movie scene.  As I gazed out the car window, I saw a woman pushing a shopping cart filled with tattered blankets, pieces of cardboard, and other various items that appeared to be more trash than trinkets.  This could not be real.  Stopped at a red light, I looked out the other window and saw a man underneath layer upon layer of torn and dirty clothing, digging through the trashcan.  My stomach began turning and I immediately wanted to go home.   I wanted to be back in familiar territory.  However, I reminded myself that I was doing a good deed and put on a brave face as we pulled up to the shelter.

Entering the shelter, my heart dropped as I stared at the people eagerly awaiting our packages.  As they stood there looking back at me I scanned over them observing the room.  Worn and tired faces walked past the windows decorated with images of Santa Clause and snowmen.  A Christmas tree stood in the corner where several children were playing some games.  As Christmas carols played in the background merging with the noise of chatter, I thought of my tree at home that was flooded with presents.  Then I began to imagine my life without any presents, or tree, or house.  
Scanning the room, trying to guess how and why these people came into poverty, I realized that some of the people did not necessarily choose to be at the shelter. Many of the people there had lost jobs and homes to some tragic events.  Their choice to live at the shelter was not necessarily a choice but rather an option to receive help to transition back into society.  Many of the people there were not single individuals struggling through life; many of them had families with children.   
    After handing out packages and serving up some food I began to talk with the people there.  A young girl, six years old, with soft brown hair came up to me smiling and holding a doll.  This had been her first real Christmas. 

She glanced back at Christmases from the past and remembered getting small necessity items from only from her mother.  However, she never had a tree to stuff presents under, and couldn’t remember getting any toys or games.  She remembered her first meeting with Santa Clause.  Slowly, she approached the funny looking man and smiled timidly upon his jolly greeting.  He introduced himself as Santa Clause and then asked what she wanted for Christmas.  She had asked for a doll that she had seen once in a store.  The doll had lemon yellow hair and wore a beautiful princess dress.   Santa Clause then told her she needed to be good and he would try to get her that new doll.

    Finally, Christmas day arrived and Santa Clause returned to the shelter.  He brought with him some older children or his helpers, as he called them.  They scattered the packages of green, red and gold under the small tree.

     After quickly opening her neatly wrapped gift, she tightly held her new toy doll in her hand; she smiled at me and revealed she had named her Angel.  Giggling at first, I explained to her that the doll’s name was Barbie.  I described the many different Barbie dolls that I had at home; I received one for every special occasion, like birthdays and holidays.  A look of confusion took over the girl’s face as she began to blush with a hint of embarrassment.  The girl had never really had a doll of her own, and she had never heard of Barbie before.  Quickly, she ran away towards the group of children in the corner of the room to play their games and play with her Angel.

    On the way back to the school, I thought about the simple things in life that I had taken for granted.  Neither my family nor I had ever had to struggle or want for things.  Food, clothing, and shelter were things that I would never have to hope for in the future.  However, I had discovered that there was more to life than material things.  I began to appreciate the opportunity I was granted to be able to see how different people’s lives can be from that which I was familiar with.  I couldn’t erase those images of the tired faces I had seen light up with joy as I gave them the simple things they needed.  I understood that there comes a time when someone needs help, and we as a compassionate society should lend that helping hand at every opportunity we get.


Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage