By Mandy Markham Johnson
My mother was the queen of Christmas. She would craft ornaments, sew stockings, and buy holiday décor year-round. Her favorite style for the season was an eclectic mix of vintage and country – a look I never quite embraced, but to this day, I know it when I see it.
My siblings and I woke on Christmas mornings to displays of gifts arranged in ways that rivaled the work of Macy’s best visual merchandisers. Santa nailed it every year at our house. As her children aged, my mother adjusted how we celebrated the holidays to accommodate our growing families, but she still managed to make it magical for all of us, even after dolls, bicycles and video games fell off of our wish lists.
I’m not sure how an elementary school teacher managed to pull this off on such a meager salary, but I like to believe in the magic of Christmas, and I never doubted it would happen again and again. So when my mother died suddenly ten years ago, just before Thanksgiving, my belief in the magic of Christmas died a sudden death, too.
Still in shock, I moved through the season that year inconsolable and distant. My husband and friends offered all sorts of support and love, but I was not having it. As I worked through my grief over the next several years, I muddled through the holidays with varying success. There were days I melted down when I saw a country snowman or a vintage-looking pixie elf in Hobby Lobby and there were days I knew that my mother’s Christmas magic was living on while watching her grandchildren enjoy the holidays.
I was scrolling through Twitter one morning in December 2012, around the time of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and saw that Ann Curry had mentioned a movement called “#26Acts” as a way to honor the victims of the shooting.
The idea was simple: perform a random act of kindness for a stranger in honor of each of the 26 victims. Best practice was to remain anonymous, but to present a note to the stranger explaining which victim the act of kindness they were receiving was honoring.
For my first act, I paid for a man’s take-out order at a local restaurant. I asked the server to select a bag waiting for pick-up, and I paid the tab slipping my note in the bag. Next, I left a $5 Starbucks gift card inside a note card taped to the mirror in a public restroom. I left iTunes gift cards and notes in magazine on airplanes. I taped snacks and notes to parked cars and bicycles around the college campus where I work. I left extra tips with notes for servers and donated blankets to our local animal shelter in honor of a victim who loved his dog.
On Christmas Eve, my husband and I decided to perform three of the acts together. We cranked up the holiday tunes in my little Fiat and headed out. We taped a $20 bill and a note to a gas pump at a station just off the interstate hoping that someone needing gas money would find it. We randomly selected an older man in a cowboy hat in the Toys-R-Us parking lot and handed him a gift card for the store as we drove off. I’ll never forget the smile I could see on his face from my rearview mirror. We delivered a bouquet of fresh flowers to a woman working the late shift at a nearby convenience store. It was the best kind of Christmas Eve. Pure Christmas magic.
I rarely saw the reactions of my recipients, but the ones I did see left a big impression on me - the surprised looks, the instant tears, the glancing around to see if they were being watched – all of this served to remind me of the surprises Santa created for me over the years. Clearly, my mother got immense joy from her queen of Christmas gig, and now I knew why. What started as a way for me to somehow acknowledge the grief of the friends and families of the Sandy Hook victims actually became the way for me to move through my grief surrounding the holiday season. Giving, it turns out, really is better than receiving.