The small rural congregation I serve several times a month has a tradition of buying Christmas presents for children in need. Teachers know who they are, and work with others to help set up the town giving tree decorated with gift tags labeled by age, sex, need, and wish. Our little congregation takes a dozen or so tags, and others do the same.
The set we got this year, like most years, included requests for winter clothing and a few toys, but with some serious specificity about clothing featuring film characters, certain styles of boots, particular colors of warm sheets, things like that. It turns out that all of it is available at Walmart, a store I try very hard to avoid, and I’m very successful at avoiding it. But the thing is, when these kids do get to go shopping for something new, that’s where they go, and that’s where they’ve seen those things, and those things are what their slightly more fortunate friends have.
Getting there for them is no easy matter. The closest Walmart is in our town, more than thirty miles from theirs. That may not seem like a long way, but if gas is dear, time is short, and money is scant, taking a trip to Walmart is an adventure that comes along only now and then. To meet their Christmas hopes, to Walmart one must go. My wife, God bless her, took the list and did the deed.
When she got home, I looked through everything and was dismayed at how poorly made so much of it was. A pair of boots, a little like Uggs, are not likely to last through the winter, maybe not even through one good soaking with ice, snow, and mud. They are not something I would have bought for my own children, but they are exactly what the other kids in that small school have, and what the child in need had requested from Santa. If she (in this case it is she) came to school with well made warm boots that would last the winter and still be good enough to hand down next year, she would not be like the others. Besides, these boots are better than no boots at all. The boys Star Wars long sleeve tee shirt may last for a few washings before it begins to fall apart, but it will be a prized possession for a while, and will be like the other prized possessions that other boys will be wearing. Who knows how durable a Mikey Mouse doll is!?
The point is that what they need and want is complex. One part has to do with the physical needs for comfort in daily life, but another has to do with the emotional need to fit in, to be like the other kids, or more accurately, to look like the other kids. In a small town with a very small school there isn’t much room for being an outcast, and there isn’t very much difference between the “rich” and the “poor.” It’s a matter of degree, sometimes not a very large degree. The children for whom we bought these presents will fit in. They will have, more or less, what the others have and look like the others look, at least for a while.
It would be wrong to romanticize the relative poverty of rural small town life, or claim that small town schools are kinder and gentler places. There is plenty not to romanticize. One can take no pride in knowing that some children depend on anonymous Christmas gifts for necessities that other children take for granted. But I do think they are places where children can learn to work things out among others they would rather not be with, because they don’t get to choose who to be with. In a class of ten or twenty, who you see is who you get. There aren’t any others somewhere else in town.
About now you, the astute reader, should complain that I ended the essay too soon. There is a lot more to be said. You would be right. I expect you are thinking about what that should be right now. I'll leave it to you to finish for yourself.