Our children are pros at Christmas lists.
I’m not sure how we’ve raised such dedicated little consumers, but I decided to try something different this year.
I pronounced one Sunday morning that we were going to make Advent lists: Not what we want for Christmas, but what we can do for others.
It isn’t just an attempt to derail holiday greed and develop their empathy skills (something that children, I have read, aren’t even capable of until age 5).
Rather, we have been the recipient of so many selfless gestures since my husband’s heart problems arose in August that I just want to pay it forward.
— The smorgasbord of food our colleagues have organized, showing up with a healthy lasagna or rice dish just when I’m at the end of my recipe rope. It’s not easy to cook low-fat/low-salt/low-everything — and keep picky children happy.
— The dear friends who volunteered to chauffeur our kids hither and yon, or take them overnight with little notice when we made trips to see a specialist in St. Louis. (My children were actually thrilled to have sleepovers on a school night — until they realized they couldn’t stay up until the wee hours yakking or playing video games.)
— The four different families who have showed up, unannounced, to mow our yard or rake leaves this fall. Raking is a big deal in our yard, which annually produces more than 50 bags of leaves and 10 bags of stinky ginkgo fruit (but that’s another rant for another day). One dad, stunned by the endless piles, declared, “Trees are overrated.” I hear ya.
— The Moravian Star light fixture that arrived at our house one day, a Pottery Barn find I had coveted but decided not to splurge on given our looming medical bills. I made the mistake of telling my sister that and ... yeah.
— The friends who had launched our infamous breezeway/mudroom makeover and took it upon themselves to finish it, cleaning out my accumulation of clutter, hanging the new light fixture, and installing cupboards and accessories. It’s simply gorgeous, and relieves my stress every time I look at it.
— The box my husband received from a former News-Gazette colleague, full of sports memorabilia signed by some of his childhood heroes — including a personal get-well note from former Braves pitcher Phil Niekro. Who would have thought autographed baseballs would move me to tears? But there you are.
All of this has caught me a bit off-guard. It’s not that it’s so unusual — I’ve written plenty of stories about good people hosting fundraisers or doing remarkable things for families in need. But you never see yourself in that narrative until life puts you there. It’s hard to take in.
I used to wonder who I would rely on in a crisis, with our families scattered around the country. When I found myself in a hospital waiting room that scary night in August, I felt very alone. I wasn’t even sure who to call first. I’ve always had older siblings around to handle those sorts of things, but this time it was me on the front lines.
After talking with a couple of relatives, our extremely compassionate bosses at work, and the friends who had taken our children for the night, I sat there wondering what to do. It was after 9 p.m., and I didn’t want to alarm anyone else.
Now I know friends would have come running.
Most of us aren’t good at asking for help. We’re a self-reliant country, and we don’t like to bother anyone. This fall, I’ve learned to accept offers — and be grateful for those who just show up and do.
A couple of Santa’s little elves had taken to heart my unintended hint about having no time to find a Christmas tree. Their gift takes up half of our living room, the fullest tree we’ve ever had.
We have tried to repay these kindnesses when we can — a thank-you note here, a plate of cookies there (or case of beer/bottle of vodka, as the case may be). But we can never really convey what it’s meant to us.
I hope our children internalize this. I hope they step in whenever their friends need help.
Their Advent lists show signs of progress. I asked them to list five things they can do for someone else this season, and they’ve already put some in action.
“Help with Dad,” my son wrote. From my daughter: “Be nice: I helped my friend when she had a stomach cramp.”
Our friends helped us focus on the good during a frightening time — something we all need more than ever this Advent.
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Her family column runs alternate Tuesdays. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org  or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Top: Montana Reitsma of Danville, runs through her list of gift ideas for Santa at the Village Mall in Danville in 2006. News-Gazette file photo by Rick Danzl.
Middle: The new Moravian star light fixture in our breezeway. Julie Wurth photo
Bottom: Our evergreen surprise. Julie Wurth photo