I will never forget two remarkable Christmas days. The first was when I was 18.
Thrilled that I had passed Year 12, and celebrating my first year at art school, my architect father bought me a signal red MG Midget.
Rocketing up the freeway with the Ramones blasting from the cassette player was exhilarating.
The second was in 1987. I was working in London as a graphic designer at a music magazine. Unsure if I would ever return, my excitable Dad booked a flight home as a "surprise" for my family. Hidden in his drawing office, near lunchtime, I sauntered out. My grandmother was so shocked she relived it ad-infinitum, and added more champagne to her tea than usual.
Subsequent Christmas days have failed to excite. Unrestrained consumerism has depressed me. But last year, my Christmas day found purpose.
My sister had told me about St Mary's House of Welcome, a 56-year old centre for disadvantaged and homeless people in Fitzroy where she had delivered some winter coats to a grateful staff.
A look at their website showed a perpetual request for basics, so they could serve 63,000 meals annually, as well as provide support services.
In turn, my shopping list expanded to include tea bags and sanitary items; their emergency plea for men's T-shirts prompted a Friday night dash to Dimmey's, where I bought seven Rolling Stones' tour shirts plus bundles of socks.
I began delivering my goods. Included were novels from my home office. Riffling through the boxes, one man spoke of his love for Lord of the Flies.
Each time I visited, I felt elated. I was doing something (albeit tiny) that mattered. The feeling became addictive.
Later that year, when the website asked for volunteers for The Big Give, the St Mary's Christmas day celebration for 300 people, I put my hand up. The theme was "A Christmas Snow Globe" and my heart bulged with excitement.
On December 25, I arrived at the Fitzroy Town Hall at 10:30am. In contrast to the bushfire-friendly winds outside, stepping inside was like entering an Icelandic grotto. Twenty silver trees glimmered onstage; snow fell from the ceiling. Dean Martin sang from the speakers. The atmosphere was magic. My job was to host a table for 10 people.
Soon the registered families, couples and singles started arriving and choosing a table. My heart raced as I waited for them to join mine.
Alice, an Aboriginal woman and her 20-year-old son Tom sat down. Mani, a bubbly Indian man followed, then a young couple, Ben and Tracey, and their sons, Ethan and Cooper. Within 15 minutes, my table was complete.
We pulled crackers and donned paper hats. Two elves and two squirrels danced onstage. Children ran to get their faces painted. Ethan and Cooper ate freshly spun fairy floss.
A bakery had donated 300 Nutella donuts. Tom had two. Lunch of ham, roast beef, chicken and vegetables, was followed by a glass of trifle. Tom requested another dessert.
At 1:15pm around 40 children filed onto the stage to meet Santa. Ethan and Cooper came down the hall, dragging sky blue sequined sacks almost larger than themselves. Ethan pulled out a skateboard, then a board game. Cooper, a LEGO set. Ben hugged Tracey and they kissed.
Despite being an abysmal dancer, I asked Mani to dance. He was reluctant to leave his gift bag with its prized $30 Coles/Myer voucher, but once certain it was safe, we ran hand-in-hand to the dance floor and jived to Wham!
By 2pm, the party was over. The music stopped. We packed up. Within half an hour the space was bare. And 115 volunteers had gone.
Outside in the heat, I felt bereft. I didn't want the joy of that day to end. All I could think about was Ben and his family. The boys' faces painted like lions, their bodies dwarfed by toys. It was my best Christmas day ever.
All names have been changed. St Mary's House of Welcome: www.smhow.org.au
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