The spirit of the holidays looms large

In some ways, Christmas will officially begin for me on Saturday.

Yes, I know the frenzy of bargain-shopping began on Thanksgiving, while stores were lit up with their displays practically the day after Halloween and radio stations cranked out their first carols somewhere in mid-November.

And as I stare at my own calendar, with the days hurtling toward Dec. 25, I know I could just as easily succumb to the frenetic cycle of to-do lists, social invitations and preparations to create the perfect holiday, all of which often swamp the joy of the season with anxiety and stress.

But this year, I’m making the conscious decision to do what I can, let go of the rest and focus my energy on the meaningful connections that allow me to savor the preciousness of the next few weeks.

Buying my first tree for my condo (an adorably small potted pine) and decorating it with the help of my mom and our family friend Julie, getting to host the annual Christmas gathering and Pollyanna gift exchange that rotates from house to house each year with a group of my girlfriends, attending the cheerfully rowdy officiants holiday party for the wedding work that I do — those are all moments that already have filled me with a deep satisfaction and joy.

But there seems no better way to commit to my intention to be present to the moments that truly matter than by volunteering at the 16th annual Rubye’s Kids Holiday Party, which is where I’ll be on Saturday, hovering somewhere between tears and elation, as I watch hundreds of underprivileged kids from Philadelphia eagerly storm Girard College for a tradition packed with enough heart and generosity to banish the bleakest of moods. Rubye’s Kids is a Jenkintown-based nonprofit founded by husband and wife Don and Roz Weiss, and named after the late Rubye Caesar, a tireless advocate for North Philadelphia’s less-fortunate children who helped the Weisses host their first holiday party in 1994, before her passing the following year.

The parties continued after her death, each December providing kids from various inner-city schools and shelters with live entertainment, a hot meal, a special gift from Santa in Toyland and other giveaways and fun activities. While the organization has since expanded its programming to help children year-round, the holiday party is a singular experience.

I first learned of Rubye’s when looking for a place to log my community service hours during my ministry training. It was often just as heartbreaking as it was heartwarming to visit the shelters where we would throw birthday parties for the kids, but I always left those few hours feeling as if I were the one being gifted, sweetly speared by something immeasurable that filled me with an expansive vitality and gratitude.

When I volunteered at the holiday party a few years ago, I can still remember the hum of anticipation in the auditorium as I waited with all the other volunteers for the kids to arrive. As they began streaming through the doors, serenaded by music and our own thunderous welcome, I felt the prick of tears. They were a gale force of hope and excitement, their bright eyes and eager smiles like beacons flaring from whatever painful circumstances they may have left behind.

We were charged not only with providing them with a day’s enchantment but with offering them an experience of unconditional love, and as I felt a rush of warmth sweep through me, I knew there was no other place I would rather have been than in that room with the spirit of Christmas a galloping grace among us.

Volunteers for the party are assigned to a variety of tasks, from facilitating activities such as face painting and making holiday ornaments to working in Toyland and distributing items like hats and gloves, and books and yo-yos. I was chosen to be one of the many chaperones who would escort a small group of children through the day’s offerings. While I don’t recall names, I can still remember the little girl who clung to my side, happy to hold my hand, turning wide, jubilant eyes toward me with each new discovery she made as our group meandered through the festivities. And the young boy, rambunctious and impatient to get to the Mecca that was Toyland, who leaned into me with just the touch of my hand on his head. And the chatty, exuberant youngster stunned by the spontaneous kiss I placed on her forehead, her broad grin afterwards cracking open another layer of tenderness, of gratitude, of a great and urgent yearning to spill as much kindness and affection as possible into these open and pliable hearts.

I missed the next few holiday parties due to December weddings, but I cannot wait to greet that lively chorus of promise and wonder on Saturday.

Being with Rubye’s Kids is a reminder that during this holiday season, there is no gift more valuable than taking the time to genuinely connect with the people around me. It is in those moments, whether I’m doubled over in belly laughter with a friend, quite literally “rockin’ ” around the Christmas tree with my niece or even exchanging a warm smile with a stranger, that I’m struck by the presence of love.

So the long, late nights of cookie-baking may have to wait. So, too, the towering stack of Christmas cards, the countless trips to the store, the rounds of social obligations, while the holidays pass by in a blur.

This Christmas, I will cherish my friends and family, plant hope where I can, revel in acts of kindness and nourish the spirit with joy.

Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times