In their drawing board versions, the winter holidays were designed to focus attention on our deepest emotions and spiritual feelings. But in the current swirl of commercial and social pressures, it's easy to forget all that meaningfulness and just bull through the season, head down and teeth gritted, until it's done.
That is, unless you know folks like those profiled below. Every year in just about every town, unique individuals tap right into the core message of the holidays and create their own traditions—whether that means giving back to their community, reversing the tide of over-consumption, reaching out to those overwhelmed with suffering, or celebrating the gifts of life and love. Here are four stories that for us capture the essence of the season.
Joanne "Rocky" Delaplaine
Joanne "Rocky" Delaplaine has been teaching yoga since the early '90s. But having been an antiwar activist in the '60s, a women's movementeer in the '70s, and a United Mine Workers employee in the '80s, she sees the practice a little differently than most. Like her idol Mahatma Gandhi, who practiced yoga daily, she has never seen her spiritual and social passions as separate. And she's found a perfect expression for this unified view in the yoga classes she teaches on New Year's Eve morning, the proceeds of which go to nonprofit organizations.
For several years now, Delaplaine has held her benefit classes at the Unity Woods Yoga Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where she is a regular instructor. Directed by noted teacher John Schumacher, the center donates the space, advertises the classes in its newsletter, and handles all the administration so that maximum dollars go to the target beneficiaries. Indeed, Delaplaine modeled her annual generosity on Schumacher himself, who had taught benefit classes at Unity Woods in the past.
In 1998, Delaplaine ("Rocky" is a nickname picked up in her UMW days) led a class that raised $500 for Grassroots Leadership, a North Carolina-based group trying to change the political dynamics of, well, the Jesse Helms state. In 1999, her class raised funds for My Sister's Place, a Washington, D.C., shelter for battered women. In 2000, her premillennium workshop proved so popular that she led two classes. She managed to raise $1,635, which she split between a local rape crisis center and Awareness, a nonprofit organization helping victims of 1999's devastating hurricane in Orissa, India. Delaplaine has also donated to a Maryland organization that teaches children how to prevent assaults.
The nonviolence theme that colors much of Delaplaine's giving comes straight from the heart of her practice. She came
to yoga in part to deal with the inner rage that fired her social actions but was burning up her relationships. "I had internalized the very violence I was working to end," she notes.
She began feeling inner peace in her first Iyengar class, and then found confirmation for her vision of spiritualized activism in Gandhi's life, Patanjali's teachings about nonviolence, and an activist/yoga teacher named Louise Dunlap. Having been inspired by so many others, she's hoping that other yoga teachers will follow her lead in their own towns and centers. "[New Year's Eve morning is] usually a time when both studios and people are available," she says. "And there's a great reward for little output."
If your picture of a "simple living" holiday season is a gray blend of Scrooge and self-denial, you haven't met Cecile Andrews. "Of all the people involved in simplicity, I think I'm probably the most hedonistic," laughs Andrews, whose book Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life (HarperCollins, 1997), Seattle Times column, workshops, and on-line organizing have spawned simple living study circles all over the country. "We're supposed to be celebrating and spending time with our friends and family—and to me, that's what the holidays symbolize."
As she sees it, however, society's shop-'til-you-drop concept of Christmas undercuts joy instead of spreading it. So when the holidays come, Andrews tests alternative ideas in her own life, and then shares the best ones with her friends.
Via her workshops, writing, and Web site contributions, Andrews helps like-minded souls weather the confused feelings that arise when you make big changes in tradition-steeped times. While her study circles meet year-round, their purpose—to help members to support each other in making lifestyle changes—comes into sharp focus as the holidays approach. "People get very anguished about talking to their families and saying, 'I don't want to spend lots of money, nor do I want to have lots of stuff,' " Andrews notes. In the circles, she says, "They get support for not feeling like they're crazy or bad, because during the holidays, there's this real guilt."
For the upcoming season, Andrews expects to spread her own holiday cheer by throwing several small parties—offering throw-together fare such as sandwiches and ice cream sundaes. She plans to give singing parties, too. The concept? Gather small groups of people who can really enjoy each other, rather than throw one elaborate shindig that wears out the hosts. Gift-wise, she'll be sharing things that matter a lot and cost a little: books, subscriptions to alternative press magazines, "green" goodies such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, games that families can play together, and items purchased from local businesses and socially responsible retailers.
Despite the lighthearted tone, there's a serious subtext to all her efforts. "Simplicity is not going to go away," Andrews asserts. "We have no choice. We're not just doing this for our own lifestyle-we're doing this for the environment. Sooner or later, people will see that we just can't go on consuming as we are."
Yoga teacher Liz Koch and her family do not take their comforts lightly. For 14 years now, they have brought Christmas to parents and children who lack the means to create the holiday for themselves. "I never had the intention of doing good," asserts Koch, who lives in the mountain town of Felton, California, with her husband and three children. "It was more that I was just thankful for what I have."
That sense of appreciation began years ago, when she received assistance from the Parents Center, an agency in nearby Santa Cruz that teaches parenting skills to people whose troubles are ricocheting to their kids. Many of the clients come from abusive backgrounds and/or have become abusive themselves. In addition, they often suffer the effects of other hurdles such as poverty, addiction, and the emotional detachment that sometimes comes with a foster care background.
While Koch didn't face the latter handicaps ("I came from a normal, middle-class dysfunctional family," she laughs), she too had been abused as a child and sought the Center's help to tame her own parenting rage. Koch was so grateful for the aid that she wanted "to take full circle what they had offered me."
Thus the Christmas Project, suggested to Koch by her Center counselor, was born. "These parents are working very hard to learn healthy parenting skills because they love their children so much," she says. "Supporting and congratulating them was a way our family could contribute."
Every December, the three Koch children select new or near-new toys and clothes they aren't using and spend a day creatively wrapping them. They make gifts for the parents, too, and often prepare baskets or holiday dinners for delivery. In the beginning, the Koch brood took on as many as three families, depending on their size and needs. Eventually, the home-schooling co-op and parent-run preschool that the Koch family was involved in signed on, so that more Center families could be served.
These days, local businesses sometimes chip in. For instance, last year a neighborhood store helped the Kochs buy a skateboard and sweatshirt for a 14-year old boy. The boy's situation exemplifies the desperation of some Center clients. He had found his father, a heroin addict, dead from an overdose the previous Christmas Eve. His mother, herself an ex-addict, was working hard to provide for her children but had just been laid off.
For Koch, the project complements her family's holiday goal of spiritual reflection. It also teaches the children that to receive, one must also give. "Through the years, our children would receive thank-you letters. But we really wanted to be anonymous. We chose to just be Santa's helpers. I didn't really want [the recipients] to feel like they had to thank another person, so much as feel the abundance that life truly has to offer."
Wings of Warmth
If we assume the Santa story is factually correct, the tradition of delivering holiday gifts by air was established long ago. But if Mr. Claus ever retires and the NASA Goddard Flying Club takes over, expect a bunch of reindeer to be out of work.
For more than a decade now, the College Park, Maryland, group has combined a passion for aviation with the desire to help others. Their holiday program, Wings of Warmth, starts each November when the members begin collecting warm clothing, canned goods, and toys. They then ferry their cargo in a string of single-engine planes to folks living in mountain towns in their region.
Original credit for Wings of Warmth goes to a recreational pilot named Steve Kish, who lives in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. One winter evening in 1989, Kish watched a television news report about the crash of a small aircraft, and started thinking of ways to generate more positive coverage about the overall safety of small planes.
Then another news item caught his eye—a story about the struggles faced by the less-fortunate at Christmastime. The segue sparked an idea. Avid pilots like him often flew on the weekends just for fun. At holiday time, why not load up these planes with items that people of lesser means might need, fly to a chilly town, and hand the gifts over to a charitable agency for distribution?
Kish shared his idea with nearby flying clubs, and the first Wings of Warmth flight took place that winter to Coatesville, Pennsylvania. In later years, the NASA Goddard Flying Club, a group of NASA Goddard Space Center employees that was involved since the beginning, adopted Wings of Warmth as its own. The project is fueled by a sense of gratitude that runs deep among pilots, say longtime participants Tom Paradis and Fred Pierce.
"Pilots realize how fortunate they are," says Pierce. "For millions of years, people have been trying to fly, and we actually live in the time when we can. There's a saying that those of us who fly have a debt to pay."
Alan Reder is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Whole Parenting Guide (Broadway Books, 1999) and Listen to This!: Leading Musicians Recommend Their Favorite Artists and Recordings (Hyperion, 1999).