The year 1976 was a trying one for our family. While most of the country was celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday, there was little to celebrate in the Collins home. In the midst of a recession, Dad’s business had suffered a major setback and bankruptcy was now unavoidable.
With Christmas looming, my father had taken a temporary job just to make ends meet. Bracing for the season, Mom and Dad had gathered their five children together to explain our dire financial situation. This year, Christmas would be sparse. Any hopes of finding skateboards, surfboards and trendy clothes under the Christmas tree now vanished, and it seemed that this would be the year that Christmas passed us by.
Then, with only two weeks until Christmas, Dad arrived home one evening in excellent spirits. He had received a generous donation at work, from an anonymous member of our church congregation. Yes, Christmas in the Collins home had been saved! Feeling so humbled by the offering and not knowing who to thank, Dad admonished each of us from that time forward to treat everyone at church as if they had been the generous donor.
The following year found our family on better financial footing, and while Dad had secured stable employment, things were still tight. Now, with just a few weeks until Christmas, Dad pulled the family together one evening to discuss what he thought was a brilliant idea. Why not take that same sum of money so generously given to us the year before and provide a Christmas for another family less fortunate?
Dad’s job had taken him into the sleepy border town of Tecate, Mexico. It was there he had seen for the first time real poverty. Our money would go far in helping a family in need from Tecate.
Dad made a living in sales. He could sell anyone anything. Now he was employing his best sales tactics on his children. But his great idea fell rather flat as my teenage siblings and I considered the implications; this would mean less for us. Besides, spending Christmas anywhere but home wouldn’t feel like Christmas. We wanted to play with our presents and show them off to our friends.
But Mom and Dad were unmoved by our objections. This would be our family Christmas service project.
Over the next two weeks, we reluctantly set about gathering gently used clothes and blankets from neighbors and friends. We started a pile of donations in our tiny living room and encouraged friends to drop off what they could. Whatever reluctance we initially felt was now giving way as the mound of donations began to grow. We purchased small gift items and wrapped them in holiday trimmings. With the bulk of the money, Mom purchased large sacks of rice, beans and other food staples. Even a local tree lot donated a freshly cut Christmas tree.
Christmas Day dawned in classic San Diego style: bright and sunny. With food, gifts, clothing and linens filling every car nook and cranny and the tree strapped to the top, we all piled in and headed for the border. Now into the hills just outside of Tecate, we traveled down a long, windy road looking for just the right home and family. Then, up on the ridge we noticed a small crude plywood structure. Several yards away stood the outhouse. It was a stark contrast to all the neighboring concrete-block homes that surrounded it. We mutually agreed: This was the place!
We carried all our goods up the hill and knocked on the door. A petite, middle-aged woman opened the door to reveal a large family behind her. In typical Latino hospitality, they warmly invited us in as if they had been expecting us. Their tiny home consisted primarily of wall-to-wall beds with a small area reserved for a few primitive kitchen appliances. There were few windows and a dirt floor. Our very modest 1,200-square-foot home in Spring Valley seemed like a palace compared to this humble dwelling. It was now apparent — we had not brought enough.
Truly we could not have shared our offerings with a more deserving and gracious family. We spoke no Spanish. They spoke no English. And yet, somehow in that perfect sense of the Christmas spirit, language didn’t matter as hearts knitted together in the most joyous bonds of the season, bringing family, and yes, even strangers, close together.
Making our way down the hillside to our car, my eldest brother spoke: “Wow, that was really cool. I just wished we had more to give.” As if on cue, we each simultaneously began to search our wallets for any spare money. Every floormat was turned, every ashtray scoured, every pocket turned inside out as we searched and searched. With a fist full of money, my brother charged up the hill to deliver our final gift. Now our offering was complete.
Reflecting on that day so many years ago, perhaps the most vivid memory of all was this: on our way back to San Diego, hardly anyone spoke. In a car usually filled with teasing, bickering and laughing, we sat unusually silent, each of us processing what had just happened. We had been touched by the true spirit of the season. In our self-absorbed teenage hearts, we had profoundly experienced the Savior’s admonition that "it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Forty-one years have come and gone since that day. We are all married now and raising families of our own. But if you were to ask each of my family members, "of all the Christmases past, which was the most special?” I’m certain the resounding reply would be: “The year we spent in Tecate was the best Christmas ever."
Editor's note: For more than 100 years, the Deseret News has published original Christmas stories, eventually starting what is known as its annual "Christmas I Remember Best" writing contest. This is one of seven stories to be highlighted this holiday season.