The concept of giving is emphasized a lot throughout the holidays, yet often there is an idea of giving with the expectation of receiving something in return. One of the most life-altering lessons that I have ever learned was how to prioritize blessing others and expect nothing in return.
The stickers that adorned each box of cinnamon rolls that we shared during the holidays to bless others, changed designs on a yearly basis – courtesy of my mom and aunt’s world-renowned graphic design skills. In this one from 2017, they went for a festive polka dot combination. Photo by Lori Tippett
Can you identify a single moment that changed the trajectory of your life?
My moment was unassuming. I genuinely did not know it was happening in the moment, and would not know the gravity of the situation until years later.
As a 4-year-old, there is very little that an individual wants more than their parent’s attention.
So, when my kindergarten class prepared for a Christmas showcase (in reality, we used puff paint to decorate mini glass candles and practiced singing one singular Christmas song), I dutifully reminded my parents that it was fast approaching and they were invited.
The day came and I frantically searched for my mom’s face in a classroom full of adults that I did not recognize. It became clear pretty quickly: She had not come.
This was extremely out of character for my mom – a woman who taught my sister and I the American Sign Language way to say “I love you” so that she could sign it to us through the smudged window pane of the classroom every morning.
Nonetheless, the showcase went on. We turned off the lights, lit our candles, stood in a circle, and sang “Silent Night” for the congregation of parents that had crammed into our tiny classroom. I sat with my friends and their parents, munching on stale gingerbread cookies and wondering why mom had not shown up.
Quickly, the reason became clear.
In the pick-up line after school, my mom and dad stood timidly against the wall, while mom gently cradled a gauze-wrapped hand. They corralled my sister and I into the car and began explaining.
“Girls,” Mom said softly, “There was a fire at the house.”
I stared at her bandaged hand in detached, unmitigated horror. At that age, it is very difficult to feasibly comprehend the weight of such a horrible statement, and – maybe thankfully – I did not really understand the gravity of what had happened. But, I could sense mom’s anxiety, which subsequently piqued my anxiety.
We made our way back to the house, where firefighters had tacked a thick, opaque tarp to the walls and ceiling surrounding the corridor of our kitchen. It had been a kitchen fire caused by a spark on the stove that caught the expanse of Christmas garland we had meticulously draped over the tops of the cabinets and instantaneously ignited our kitchen in flames.
In an act of heroic bravery, my mom had grabbed the pan containing a majority of the flames and carried it – with her bare hands (hence the burn) – outside to throw into the snow.
Still, the kitchen had suffered significant damage and smoke had infiltrated the rest of the house. In the days that followed, I watched as various companies came through our house and took almost everything. All of our belongings were loaded onto a truck and hauled away to be assessed for smoke damage. They took virtually everything – even our Christmas tree.
Because this debacle occurred only a few weeks before Christmas, companies tasked with helping my family regroup and rebuild were a little bit delayed. So, in the meantime, we kept the tarp up to tape off the kitchen and stayed in the house.
Immediately, there was an outpouring of love and support from those around us. Our church family, neighbors and classmates’ families banded together to ensure that our needs were met. They brought us necessities, like toiletries, clothes, even meals, in an effort to make sure that we were cared for during the Christmas season.
Eventually, our house was deemed inhabitable while the damage was still present, so we were moved into a hotel that had recently been built near our house. The circumstances were trying, yet because we were fully enveloped in the love and support of those around us, it did not seem so bad.
We became fast friends with the hotel staff because they became part of our daily routine for our four-month stay. The near-daily meals that our friends and family provided for us usually provided an ample amount of leftovers, and because we were living in a space without a refrigerator, we ended up sharing the remaining food with the hotel staff, allowing us to eat and fellowship together.
This fellowship struck a realization in my mom’s heart which she readily began to teach to my sister and I.
Ministry presents itself in some strange ways. For my family and I, this occurred through the provision of warm, homemade meals in a time when we did not necessarily have a home or the ability to make food for ourselves spoke to our hearts and represented a way that our community could support us. The giving spirits of our friends poured a sense of hope into our lives that was desperately needed at the time and helped us realize that ministry takes on many faces.
The following year, Mom corralled my sister and I into our newly renovated kitchen, sat us at the kitchen table and began a proposal.
“OK girls. I want you to think of all of the people that blessed us last year when we needed it most,” she said, brandishing a pen over a loose piece of printer paper.
And so, we began devising a plan.
We drew on our love for baking, reflecting on the way that so many people showed us support by providing meals, and decided that we were going to make cinnamon rolls – the most festive of all pastries – and deliver them to everyone on our list of people who had blessed us.
We gathered supplies, made our list of recipients and got to work.
Each of us had a specific job. I was in charge of prepping the pans, making the cinnamon filling and maintaining and monitoring the actual baking process. Mom was in charge of making the dough and rolling it out. Madison, my sister, was in charge of making and applying the frosting to each pan.
Our assembly quickly devolved into genuine chaos, nearly out of control. We had almost 200 people on our list of recipients, which – even though our kitchen was newly renovated – was a lot for our small kitchen to handle.
There was flour on the floor, on me, on our poor, unsuspecting dog – I do not think there was a single surface that escaped some form of demolition.
Frosting ran down the legs of the kitchen table, spattered onto the walls and smudged across the countertops.
The smell of cinnamon was so deeply baked into our house that it began to linger on us as well, meaning that I was forced to endure hearing the baffled comment: “Do you smell cinnamon?” nearly every time I walked into a room for the entirety of the Christmas season.
We christened the semi-new kitchen with frosting-sticky hands and hearts that were intent on being a blessing to those who showed us such genuine kindness.
As this was our first year of establishing what would become a beloved tradition and most resonating lesson, we did not realize that we needed a name for our process.
But, upon the second, third and fourth years, it became evident that referring to our strenuous baking process and tedious delivery schedule needed a title that was not “cinnamon-roll season.” The tradition had evolved from baking for people who had helped us during our time of struggles to baking for anyone in our lives who we thought needed to be blessed.
My momma, ever the creative genius, began referring to our little ministry as “Operation Spread Christmas Joy.”
We assembled tons of tan bakery boxes, stamped a personalized little sticker that boasted “Operation Spread Christmas Joy!” in festive colors, placed the pan of cinnamon rolls in the box, tied it with red and white twine and placed them on the doorsteps of everyone on our list – a process (from start to finish) that took about an entire dedicated week.
This tradition became one of my biggest life lessons. My mom utilized this tradition to teach my sister and I about being grateful, as well as actively trying to be a blessing in other people’s lives so that we could exemplify the love of Christ – our reason for the season.
The tradition evolved throughout the years. We began giving trays of cinnamon rolls to people who had blessed us throughout the years in small ways such as our local Schnucks grocery baggers and the manager who special ordered our insanely rare cat food for our geriatric, yet still alive (somehow) cat, to people who we felt needed to be blessed such as the man who rang the bell for the Salvation Army donations outside of our grocer or a random stranger who we interacted with while stopping for coffee during cinnamon roll delivery days.
I witnessed the way that something as small as a pan of cinnamon rolls and a quick “Happy Holidays” could change someone’s entire demeanor. The way that people were genuinely excited and grateful for our small attempt to bless them struck a chord in my heart that fully changed the way I view life.
I experienced the way that a small blessing can be life-changing and, because of this, I will always prioritize attempting to be a blessing to others. Sometimes being a blessing is the very thing that will change someone’s perspective for the better.
When I think of Christmas joy, I immediately think of cinnamon rolls. These seemingly insignificant baked goods were the instrument by which my family and I have been able to try to be a blessing to others. I never would have been given such a wonderful opportunity to connect with the people around me and have the chance to minister to others if it weren’t for the catastrophic events of the house fire giving my family the platform to give back through one of our passions: baking.
So, if you are struggling this Christmas season – maybe your parents can’t make it to your beautiful, candle-lit, ugly sweater-infested Christmas concert (it’s OK, we’ve all been there) – remember that incredible blessings can come from the strangest of circumstances – maybe, they’ll change the trajectory of your life.