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Remembering a sack full of pennies

December is a month of mixed messages. For many, it is a season of bright sparkling lights, ribbons and bows, clinking glasses, and glistening brown turkeys.
December is a month of mixed messages.

For many, it is a season of bright sparkling lights, ribbons and bows, clinking glasses, and glistening brown turkeys.

The luckiest among us are enjoying reunions with family and friends, and much-anticipated breaks from offices and classrooms.

But for others, what is supposed to be the most joyous page on the calendar is tinged with melancholy – it’s hard to celebrate when you’ve lost a job, a relationship, or a loved one. And households that struggle to put meals on the table and meet rent deadlines during the year’s first 11 months feel the additional pressure of filling Christmas stockings and answering letters to Santa.

If ever there is a time for us to count our blessings and share our good fortune with others, this is it. We are an affluent society – rich beyond the wildest dreams of millions around the globe.

This should not be a season of giving and getting – it should be a time for sharing.

It’s the time of year I recall The Most Generous Gift I ever saw.

We were living in Ottawa, and each day during my eight-block walk to work I could count on passing half a dozen people who held out hands, or cups, or just asked for help from strangers. I got to know some of the familiar faces, and I would offer some support with my quarters, loonies or toonies.

I seldom just gave people money without speaking to them, asking them how they were doing, treating them like fellow human beings. Many street people seem surprised that anyone would be interested in their welfare. They are accustomed to passers-by either pretending they don’t exist or tossing some coins in their direction without saying so much as a single word, as if their largesse excused them from any obligation for human contact.

Most of the regulars I met were courteous and surprisingly happy, given their apparent circumstances. They were appreciative of anything I could afford to give them, and greeted me just as amiably when I shrugged my shoulders and said “Sorry, not this time.”

Midway through our first December in Ottawa, I turned on the evening news and watched a presentation taking place in the Byward Market, a favourite hangout for many city panhandlers. A group of street people – several of whom I recognized from my daily Rideau Street route to the office – were handing a bulging burlap sack to a woman representing a Christmas fund for underprivileged children.

That sack contained over 40,000 pennies, a $400 donation from this rag-tag group who wore tattered clothes and slept in doorways through frigid Ottawa winters. They pooled the pennies they had received in handouts that year to provide gifts to children they felt needed their humble generosity.

I’ve never seen any more generous gesture than that sack bulging with pennies from the pockets of people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, or where they were going to sleep that night.

Can any of the rest of us afford to be less generous?

Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and may 2008 provide many opportunities to share your good fortune.


Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.





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About the Author: Maurice Switzer

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation
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