2014 0105 life on purpose wise men

Today is the feast of Epiphany — Little Christmas! At our house, that means we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus with festive foods, Christmas carols and exchanging little gifts. Christmas day was just the beginning of our celebrations which culminate today, on this feast of Little Christmas.

In many churches, this feast is celebrated on the second Sunday following Christmas. Depending on the day of the week Christmas lands, it sometimes coincides exactly on Jan. 6 – 12 days after Christmas. In some traditions – especially in Latin America and in Eastern Europe – the Feast of Epiphany is an even bigger feast day than Christmas.

Little Christmas has also provided us with a way to extend the Christmas celebrations when life gets in the way. Last year, my daughter Jo was released from the hospital on Christmas Day after three weeks of being in and out of the hospital for emergency brain surgeries. We spent a very quiet Christmas recovering as we ate leftovers provided by a generous friend’s festive table. In the 12 days that followed, I ate far too many Christmas cookies and was glad indeed to end the feasting with a small family gathering on the Feast of Epiphany.

This year, omicron stifled our celebrations a bit. We are thankful for an internet connection, UPS, Amazon, and Facetime to keep us connected to our older kids and to our extended family. I was close to tears on Christmas Eve, as my husband and I sat with Johanna attending Mass online again as we have done so many times since March 2020.

In my prayer time, a few weeks before Christmas, I experienced a growing consternation within me as I thought about the coming celebrations. I was remembering last Christmas and the chaos of the emergency surgeries and hospitalizations. Though it was hard, there was a simplicity that gave way to a quiet and holy Christmas.

I didn’t want the meaning of Christmas to get lost in the details of celebrations this year. I considered ways we could reach out to help others in need. I wondered if we could help out at a local homeless shelter or another ministry to people in need. As I prayed, I felt the Spirit lift my eyes to look out the window to the adjacent property next door. It was as if God tapped on my shoulder and whispered “love your neighbor-literally.”

We live next to a group home run by RISE Life Services https://riselifeservices.org/. When we considered making an offer on this crazy home which was overgrown with trees and left empty for 10 years, it was the proximity to the group home that sealed the decision in my heart.

Even though we provide for our disabled daughter in our home, my heart is also with the residents and the staff who care for other disabled adults in group homes. I knew we needed to live here to pray for and to be good neighbors to others who support people with disabilities.

So at the prompting of the Spirit, I reached out to a supervisor for the group home to inquire about how we could help make their Christmas celebrations a little brighter. She told me a little bit about the individual needs and gave me a Christmas list of gifts.

We also discussed how hard the pandemic has been on people with developmental disabilities and the aides who care for them in group homes. To me, these homes and individuals are the unsung heroes in this pandemic.

There were no drive-by parades or signs and lunches for direct support persons whose lower wages, set by the Office of People With Developmental Disabilities, are woefully inadequate, especially considering the care these individuals provide for disabled adults.

I knew we also needed to include those workers in our Christmas giving. But I also knew our family couldn’t do this alone — and we didn’t have to either.

Over the past four years since we’ve lived here on Sound Shore Road, we have met more neighbors and friends than in the past 24 living on the North Fork. It’s a little piece of heaven up here on this quiet road tucked in between farmlands, preserves, and the Long Island Sound.

I tell people that I think the air is different here because of the breezes that come off the Sound and mix with the sounds of shore and woodland birds who fly in the sky above. It makes the neighbors friendlier and brings us all outside more where we greet each other as we walk on the road to Iron Pier Beach.

We also have a very active civic association that meets regularly in each others’ homes and stays connected via email. Before we even moved into our home, we were invited to a Christmas party and met many neighbors.

When I shared my Christmas wish to adopt the group home, with the civic association, the response was heartfelt and supportive. As I anticipated, our wonderful neighbors responded with great interest and care. I simply presented an idea and shopped for a few small gifts. They neighbors did the rest and more. We used email communication to spread the news. The response was generous and overwhelming.

Johanna will tell you that one of her favorite neighbors is Santa Claus. She has no conflict in her mind referring to him as “Santa a,ka Tony” because she loves them both. Santa is also a frequent egg customer and often orders Jo’s apple cobbler too.

Having Santa living around the corner from the group home definitely helped our Christmas surprise as we were able to arrange a visit with some gifts for the residents a few days before Christmas. Then on Christmas Eve, the neighbors brought homemade food and more gifts for both the residents and the staff.

What started as a little idea for Christmas became an outpouring of generosity and hope from our entire neighborhood towards the residents and their staff.

There is one theme — a lesson I’ve been pondering since March 2020 when this pandemic began. I know I’ve shared it in this column before, but I think it bears repeating especially as frustrations rise and COVID impacts our lives again.

Small is beautiful and the blessings abound.

It’s a beautiful thing when neighbors reach out to neighbors to offer some Christmas cheer, when one takes care of another till a whole household feels loved. When our big celebrations turn into small ones, it’s easier to listen to another’s heart and spend more time with each other and less time in preparations.

After the chorus of angels lit up the skies on that first Christmas Eve and the shepherds went back to shepherding their sheep, there was still a young family in a little house in Bethlehem adjusting to their new life. The star still shone above them, guiding the Magi to the ordinary little family in Bethlehem to see the extraordinary birth of a King.

“The Magi went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Matthew 2:9-11

May we all keep a little Christmas alive in our hearts every day.

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Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen